Ridge statement sows confusion on cybersecurity chief

He said the position would be elevated to the assistant secretary level, but officials now say details haven't been worked out yet.

The technology industry stands behind its call for an assistant secretary for cybersecurity in the Homeland Security Department, even as confusion grows over what the department is planning.

The department is backpedaling on Tuesday's comments from Homeland Secretary Secretary Tom Ridge that the cybersecurity position would be elevated to an assistant secretary with responsibility over telecommunications. Homeland Security Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Wednesday that the department "believes the position needs to be elevated but is still working out the details and specifics."

"We're in the final stages," he said, doing it "concurrently with reviewing the House intelligence reform legislation" that would elevate the post to an assistant secretary with responsibility for the National Communications System.

Ridge told the National Infrastructure Advisory Council on Tuesday that the department is preparing to make the director of the national cybersecurity division an assistant secretary. That would put cybersecurity on par with the assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, who currently oversees the issue.

Department officials since have told reporters that Ridge misspoke. A department source said Homeland Security actually is leaning toward making the cybersecurity director a deputy assistant secretary but has not ruled out the assistant-secretary level.

But there has been no public announcement recanting Ridge's comments to senior technology executives. That has left industry executives confused because they heard Ridge make his remark publicly but have seen no retraction other than in press reports.

The difference in the level for the cybersecurity post is significant to industry, which sees a deputy assistant secretary as little to no change from the current situation, which recently contributed to the abrupt departure of cybersecurity director Amit Yoran.

Several key industry associations sent a letter to House leaders last week arguing that the assistant-secretary level is the "appropriate solution" to an issue that they said requires greater attention, as part of the war against terrorism. The signers included the Business Software Alliance (BSA), Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA), Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) and TechNet.

CSIA President Paul Kurtz said on Wednesday that he still stands behind the letter.

Without cybersecurity, there is no physical security," said Dexter Ingram, BSA's director of information security policy. "Therefore, the elevation of cyber security within [the department] is critical to America's national security strategy." BSA favors an assistant secretary, he said.

"We need a full-time government official at a sufficiently high level in the Department of Homeland Security focused solely on cyber security, with the clout to take America's information infrastructure off of the table for terrorists," ITAA President Harris Miller said. "We support the creation of an assistant secretary for cyber security." Miller said ITAA was the first organization to call for the creation of a "cybersecurity czar."