DHS official says cyber czar 'bad idea,' cyber coordinator 'great idea'

The Homeland Security Department's top cybersecurity official today pushed back on speculation that the high-level individual President Obama will appoint to coordinate the nation's preparedness for and response to high-tech attacks would be another White House czar.

Obama has named aides to push his healthcare, economic, energy and other policy agendas, and he promised four months ago he would handpick someone to head cybersecurity efforts.

"We're not getting a cyber czar; we're getting a coordinator. A czar is a bad idea. A coordinator is a great idea," Homeland Security Deputy Undersecretary Philip Reitinger said today at the launch of a Spy Museum cybersecurity exhibit. He also defended the prolonged process for hiring the official, who will report jointly to the National Security Council and National Economic Council. "We need the right person, not a person immediately," he said.

Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Russell Feingold, D-Wis., is planning a Tuesday hearing to examine the history and legality of czars -- administration appointees who bypass standard vetting processes and do not require Senate confirmation. Witnesses include a Congressional Research Service official and scholars from the University of Virginia, Villanova University and the Heritage Foundation.

Mike McConnell, who served as director of national intelligence under former President George W. Bush, said key agencies have to increase their presence and interaction because a typical executive branch czar lacks adequate authority, appropriations and staff. Reitinger said it is "absolutely important that we bring the right person in that will drive progress across all of the agencies."

Frank Kramer, an assistant Defense secretary under former President Bill Clinton, remains a frontrunner for the cyber coordinator post, according to sources.

While agencies await a leader, they are not standing still, Reitinger said. "We have a leadership commitment. We've got the right people coming into place ... people who understand the situation we're in."

Former FBI Deputy Assistant Director Christopher Painter, who replaced Melissa Hathaway as Obama's acting senior director for cybersecurity in late August, is coordinating activities stemming from a report Obama requested early in his term to assess the government's ability to respond to cyber incidents.