Defense cyber chief downplays need to resolve lines of authority

Defense and Homeland Security agreement is the first step.

A senior Pentagon official Wednesday downplayed the need to define clear lines of authority for federal agencies involved in combating cybersecurity threats, saying the emphasis has shifted toward having agencies work more closely together.

The Obama administration has ramped up efforts aimed at getting agencies to better coordinate their cybersecurity activities, even though questions persist over each agency's role and responsibilities and what authority they should have to defend computer and other information technology networks.

"People get focused on the authorities. In spite of the authorities, we've got problems," said Robert Butler, who left Computer Sciences Corp. last year to become the deputy assistant Defense secretary in charge of cyber policy.

During a breakfast with reporters, Butler said the administration has been shifting its focus toward determining what it wants agencies to accomplish, rather than first defining the lines of authority.

Just last week, for example, the Defense and Homeland Security departments announced an agreement under which they will share resources and colocate personnel at the secretive National Security Agency.

The agreement "was another step on our journey to a partnership with DHS," Butler said, adding that it "sets up an opportunity for DHS to take advantage of" DoD technical expertise.

"DoD's focus is really about getting into the mix," he said. "We want to get into the game with DHS and begin to practice this."

Butler acknowledged that much work remains to define operational roles and responsibilities of both agencies. For now, he said, a major goal is improving "situational awareness," or the ability to know when networks are under attack and, when possible, where an attack is coming from.

He said protecting privately owned critical infrastructure networks, such those of electrical companies and financial institutions, is "clearly" the responsibility of DHS. But he did not rule out a role for DoD in protecting those networks. DHS could request assistance from the Pentagon if needed, he said.

But Butler said determining the origin of an attack, commonly referred to as attribution, is still a major problem. And the administration is "grappling" with how to measure the seriousness and intention of an attack, he added.

Butler also said officials are considering the idea of creating a secure network that could shield government and privately owned networks from attacks. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who is both NSA director and head of the newly created U.S. Cyber Command, has put forward the concept of a secure zone, which has been dubbed "dot-secure."

"That is one idea in a series of operating concepts," Butler said.