Lawmakers pad FBI cyber schooling funds

Congress will pay the FBI an additional $18.6 million to better investigate computer hacking cases, following a federal study that found a third of bureau agents probing breaches significant to national security lacked the necessary networking and counterintelligence skills.

A spending package passed Nov. 17 to fund many federal agencies through September 2012 includes President Obama's full request for $166.5 million to tackle computer crimes, an 11.2 percent increase over last year's appropriations. The bureau must use the money to hire an additional 42 computer security professionals, including 14 special agents, according to a report accompanying the legislation.

This spring, a Justice Department inspector general reported that 36 percent of FBI field agents on national security-related cases felt they did not possess the expertise to do their jobs.

"Within funds provided, the FBI shall expand training for FBI cyber agents involved in national security intrusions cases," the lawmakers wrote, adding that the "training should focus on increasing the number of agents qualified to understand current techniques and tactics used by those engaged in illicit cyber activities, and respond to shortfalls identified by the DOJ OIG."

Still, it would be hard to argue the bureau is computer illiterate with successful takedowns of multibillion-dollar illegal gambling and online advertising schemes during the past seven months. And for the first time in history, the FBI destroyed a botnet, a remotely-controlled network of computers infected with malicious software and used to compromise other computers.

The funding increases, including the training support, should be used "to further the bureau's investigatory, intelligence gathering and technological capabilities to address malicious cyber intrusions and protect critical infrastructure in the United States from cyberattacks," the lawmakers wrote.

Last week, computer security experts raised the specter of attacks on vital water pumping systems. The FBI and the Homeland Security Department currently are investigating the cause of a reported utility system failure in Springfield, Ill.

Under the legislation, in four months, bureau officials must present lawmakers with a classified and unclassified national cyber threat assessment.

Andy Purdy, former head of DHS' national cybersecurity division, said the federal government should be analyzing the potential risk of a catastrophic cyberattack, if it isn't already. "What is our level of preparedness for the power grid, for financial services," questioned Purdy, now chief cyber strategist for CSC. "Who is paying attention to this?"