ADVICE+DISSENT:Intelligence File The Real Cyber Czar

A formidable intelligence chief, not a White House staffer, will run network security.

In May, President Obama declared cyberspace a "strategic national asset," and an unacceptably vulnerable one. In a speech at the White House, he warned of unprecedented levels of online theft, pervasive electronic espionage and the increasing use of cyberattacks in conjunction with military operations. Then he pledged to appoint a national-level cybersecurity official to coordinate the government's responses to online threats, giving such efforts "the high-level focus and attention they deserve."

But three months after the president's speech, he hadn't yet named the official, in part because more candidates had declined the job than were still in the running for it. The duties of the so-called cyber czar were poorly defined and the office's authorities were too weak to entice a number of well-qualified candidates. According to several news reports, they told the White House, "Thanks, but no thanks."

As of mid-September, Obama was still czar-less. But that doesn't mean a national-level cyber chief, watching over the country's networks, isn't already in place.

Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander is the director of the National Security Agency, the largest intelligence agency in the government, and with little public fanfare he has been setting up the central nervous system in the government's new campaign to defend cyberspace. The agency historically has not been a front-line guardian of civilian government networks, much less the systems that run privately owned electrical plants, dams and financial systems. But that is changing. Recently, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said NSA will provide DHS with "technical assistance" as it carries out its statutory mission to defend civilian networks and coordinate private sector protection.

Homeland Security, with its much smaller and less experienced cyber staff, will depend on Alexander and his crew for the tools, expertise and resources to do the job. "That is the structure of the cyber policy plan that the president announced," Napolitano recently told Wired magazine's Danger Room blog.

And where would this elusive cyber czar fit in that matrix? The official won't have the budget of a major agency, nor the authority to tell Napolitano or Alexander how to run theirs. At that speech in May, Obama said he would "depend on this official in all matters relating to cybersecurity." But in terms of actually doing the job, it's clear that the president already has someone-Alexander.

A number of DHS cyber officials have resigned in recent months, one of them after complaining publicly that NSA was trying to take over the department's mission. Melissa Hathaway, the official who was Obama's most senior cyber expert in the White House and who had been a candidate for the czar post, decided to leave government, telling The Washington Post she "wasn't willing to continue to wait any longer," and she wasn't "empowered" to make any policy changes.

For his part, Alexander has kept a modest public profile and downplayed talk of bureaucratic turf wars with Homeland Security. He and Napolitano are on the same page, even if that can't be said for her staff. In his speeches and statements, Alexander displays the ease of a man who's been given a mission and who knows what it is. Whoever becomes czar will have to hope Alexander maintains this collaborative spirit-and that he returns phone calls.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.