Senator urges FBI not to eliminate computer security center

FBI Director Robert Mueller is considering whether to eliminate the National Infrastructure Protection Center, the federal government's central coordinator of information about threats to the nation's transportation, communications, finance, power and water systems, according to a letter obtained by Government Executive.

According to the letter, which Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sent to Mueller Tuesday, the FBI director outlined a proposal to dismantle NIPC during a February meeting with the senator. Grassley wrote that Mueller is considering placing one part of NIPC in the FBI's criminal division and another in its counterterrorism/counterintelligence division.

In a Presidential Decision Directive issued in 1998, President Clinton formalized NIPC's role, saying it should "provide a national focal point for gathering information threats to infrastructures. The directive gives NIPC the authority to coordinate the federal government's response to attacks on elements of the nation's critical infrastructure.

Grassley said that splitting the center's national security and law enforcement roles would detract from current information-sharing initiatives. Moving NIPC's functions primarily into the criminal division, which investigates criminal acts after they occur, "will only increase the problems NIPC had in the past with quickly analyzing threat information and issuing timely and accurate warnings," Grassley wrote.

NIPC now gets information from a number of fledgling private sector organizations called information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs). This feedback is important because 90 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure resides in the private sector.

Private sector sources told Government Executive that they have been wary of working with a federal organization that is part of the FBI. "People don't like to be asked questions by the FBI," said one source who wished to remain anonymous. Furthermore, the sources said NIPC takes information from the ISACs but rarely provides them with legitimate warnings or analysis in return.

Grassley said in his letter that Mueller's plan "would destroy the fragile trust between NIPC and the private sector ….The broken trust would in turn curtail, if not end, the flow of information from the private sector to the FBI, leaving the bureau essentially blind about threats to critical infrastructure."

Grassley wrote that his staff has tried for two weeks to get updates about the plan but has received no response. Mueller could make his decision by next week. If he decides to dismantle NIPC, Grassley threatened to introduce legislation that would remove NIPC from the FBI.

Rumors that the Bush administration has been considering moving NIPC out of the FBI have been circulating for about a year, the sources said. But simply moving NIPC out of the FBI won't solve its information sharing and communication problems. "It's like talking to a brick wall up there," one source said.

In his letter, Grassley said he "and others in Congress would view implementation of this plan as a classic example of FBI jurisdictional encroachment: diverting funds and personnel from one unit with a clear mission to other units with a very different mission, and laying primary claim to a crime issue that is high profile, second only to terrorism, that many other agencies handle as well," Grassley wrote. "If you feel the FBI needs more resources to investigate computer and Internet crimes you should make your case to Congress."

According to an FBI spokesman, the agency will respond to Grassley by March 22, as he requested in his letter.

"What is under consideration is how the FBI can best coordinate its many cyber functions and how we can maximize our support for NIPC," the FBI said in a statement issued Thursday. The FBI confirmed Mueller met with Grassley and others to discuss NIPC's destiny and said the bureau "will have further discussions before making any final decisions." Furthermore, the FBI said "NIPC has become a vital part of the overall cyber effort, especially with its many ties to the private sector and other agencies."