Patching Holes

Shouldn't top government officials have at least a working knowledge of technology?

In mid-June, the Pentagon was forced to take as many as 1,500 of its computers offline due to the latest in a long line of cyberattacks on military systems. Afterward, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about its effects-for example, whether or not his own e-mail had been affected.

Nope, he responded. "I don't do e-mail. I'm a very low-tech person." The following week, President Bush met with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the White House. After their discussion, Bush said they had "talked about an interesting subject, and one that I can learn a lot about, and that is the cyberattack that makes us all vulnerable." Estonia, he noted, had recently endured a highly publicized wave of such attacks, and was considering setting up a "center of excellence" to share its knowledge.

When the secretary of Defense acknowledges that he works in the technological dark ages, and the president of the United States says he has a thing or two to learn about the potentially crippling effects of cyberattacks, isn't it cause for at least a little concern? After all, we're well over a decade into the Internet revolution. Is it too much to ask at this stage that top federal leaders have at least a working knowledge of technology?

For many, the answer is no. "Why should the head of DoD spend hours fooling with e-mail?" wrote one reader of GovernmentExecutive.com's Fedblog in response to a post on the issue. "That's what he has office assistants for! I want him to be thinking of the big picture, not wading through volumes of e-mail."

Others responded that Bush, Gates and other leaders have good reason to avoid the trappings of technology. "We now live in a culture of investigate, probe and conjure allegations," wrote one respondent.

"These are the modern strategies of political warfare when there are honest policy debates. The chief weapon in all of this is e-mail traffic."

But Gates didn't say he avoided e-mail because he didn't have the time, or was worried about leaving electronic bread crumbs all over the place. He said he didn't because he's a "very low-tech person." That's a big difference.

Consider that Gates' statement came just a week after Government Executive's Bob Brewin reported that both the Army and the Air Force had issued solicitations seeking industry help in developing the capacity to launch "offensive information operations"-that is, cyberattacks of their own. The very future of U.S. military strategy rests heavily on a new theory of operations known as "network-centric warfare."

Of course, technological literacy is hardly a make-or-break issue for the leaders of the military. Gates and Bush, after all, don't need to be experts on information warfare and the risks of cyberattacks to the United States. That's what they have thousands of employees for. And using e-mail regularly wouldn't give them that expertise anyway.

But it would certainly help them put things in context. And it just might make them more efficient, too. After all, even if you have an assistant to screen your messages, wouldn't it make more sense to have them forwarded to you electronically, rather than printing out and exchanging what must be thousands of pieces of paper?

When it comes to technology, at this stage even the people at the tippy-top of the organizational chart ought to have at least some knowledge of its importance to everyday government operations. It's difficult to imagine that someone who isn't even familiar with how e-mail works would be able to understand the real-world effects of cyberattacks and make informed decisions about how to counter them-and launch your own, if necessary.

If leaders send the message that technology is someone else's problem, they take a very real risk. On the other hand, if they cultivate an interest in and knowledge of technological issues, their efforts will have positive ripple effects down the chain of command. Everybody wants to stay a step ahead of the boss when it comes to technology, just to be able to impress him or her. Why not raise the bar by improving technological literacy-starting at the top.

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