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GAO: Still not enough work on cybersecurity

National plan for critical infrastructure protection still not completed, auditors find.

Though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made strides in its cybersecurity efforts, the agency has not adequately addressed any of its key responsibilities in that area, an assertion the agency disputed, according to a Thursday report from the Government Accountability Office.

GAO praised DHS for establishing a computer emergency readiness team with stakeholders from the public and private sectors, as well as for setting up information sharing forums for federal and law enforcement officials. The department, however, has failed to address in full any of its 13 responsibilities, including the development of a national plan for critical infrastructure protection and identifying cyber threats and vulnerabilities, the GAO said.

The agency recommended that DHS engage stakeholders to prioritize cybersecurity responsibilities. The report (GAO-05-434) also called on the department's National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) to draft a list of activities that will help it address challenges that are slowing progress and come up with identity performance measures and milestones it can reach.

DHS agreed that "much remains to be done" on cybersecurity, but the agency took umbrage with the assertion that actions "have prevented us from achieving significant results in improving the nation's cyber security posture," Steven Pecinovsky, DHS liaison to GAO, wrote on May 3 in response to a draft version of the GAO report.

The department also agreed that prioritizing with stakeholders is "critical," but said that the NCSD already has a prioritized list of activities and goals that are updated on a quarterly basis. GAO "does not explain why these efforts are insufficient or what specific actions GAO would like to see accomplished," Pecinovsky wrote. DHS already has identified performance measures and milestones and "implemented procedures to systematically track organizational progress," he said.

House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said the report affirms that "the status quo does not serve our cyber security needs." DHS needs to work harder at coordinating from within on cyber security, he said. "The nation needs a principal federal authority on cyber security to secure this vital component of our national infrastructure."

The Homeland Security Department reauthorization bill, H.R. 1817, sponsored by Cox and passed by the House would create an assistant secretary for cyber security within the department.

Homeland Security ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said in a statement that the report shows "the [Bush] administration has not done enough to build [DHS'] credibility as the leader of our cyber security efforts. So much of our daily lives -- from our banking to our water and electricity supplies -- rely on a strong cyber infrastructure."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who also sits on the committee, agreed. "The department needs to be advancing on cyber security," she said. "We cannot afford to sit back and make minimal, if any, progress in critical infrastructure protection."