U.S. lawmakers questioned Wednesday whether the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has the authority or resources it needs to protect the nation against cyberattacks.
Some members of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee raised concerns about the number and quality of workers the cybersecurity division of DHS is able to recruit, and others asked whether DHS needs more authority from Congress to force other agencies to make changes to their cyberdefenses.
The U.S. government is not ready to fight a cyberwar, said Stewart Baker, a partner in the Steptoe & Johnson law firm and former assistant secretary for policy at DHS.
"There is no doubt that we are not prepared to address a major cyberattack today," he said. "If we end up in a serious conflict with five or 10 very sophisticated countries, we will be attacked, and we will not know how to respond."
Reported attacks on U.S. agencies increased by 400% from 2006 to 2009, said Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and committee chairman. "Whether the military or intelligence-gathering operations of foreign nations; domestic or international terrorist groups; lone-wolf, hate-driven individuals; common criminals, or thrill-seeking hackers, those attempting to infiltrate and exploit this country's computer networks are both numerous and determined," he said.
The urgency to fix cybersecurity problems at DHS and across the country is missing, said Representative Dan Lungren, a California Republican. "With the money we have now, with the authority that exists now, with the personnel that exists now ... can we do a significantly better job?" he said. "Or is the answer always going to be, 'We could do a better job if we had more money and we had more personnel?'"
U.S. government computer systems could be better secured, said Gregory Wilshusen, director of information technology at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Many U.S. agencies haven't installed the technology needed to adequately protect their networks, he said.
"The controls are available, it's a matter of getting specific devices to be more secure," he said.
Many committee members focused on concerns they had with DHS.
The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), the DHS division with responsibility for defending federal civilian agencies against cyberattack, is understaffed and has had four directors in five years, Thompson said. Contractors at US-CERT outnumber federal employees by a ratio of about three to one, Thompson added.
US-CERT "does not have sufficient staff to analyze security information," he said. "Given these administrative failings, it should come as no surprise that day-to-day operations may suffer."
Congress gave US-CERT authority to increase its staff from 38 in 2008 to 98 in fiscal year 2010, which began last October, said Richard Skinner, inspector general at DHS. More than 40 of those positions remain unfilled, he said.
"We're fighting a cyberspace war with only half our troops," said Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat.
US-CERT should hire about 25 additional workers by the end of this fiscal year, said Greg Schaffer, assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications at DHS. In addition, the DHS National Cyber Security Division has hired more than 150 workers since the start of fiscal year 2009, he said.
But Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, questioned where DHS and other U.S. agencies would get the cybersecurity professionals they need to protect government networks. Graduate students in computer science at top universities may not see the U.S. government as the best place to launch their careers, she said.
"I don't know that we're going to succeed in getting those young people to apply for a federal job," she sad. "But we need them. We're going to have to pay them a lot of money -- more than the [government's pay] scale, and even then, we'll be lucky to get some of them."
Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, suggested that DHS needs additional authority to require other agencies to make changes to their cybersecurity efforts. New legislation may be needed, she said.
It's "very troubling" that DHS cannot force other agencies to make changes, she said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.