Report: Obama close to appointing White House cybersecurity chief

Bill Clinton aide Frank Kramer said to be pick

More than three months after establishing a new White House office for cybersecurity, President Barack Obama may finally be close to appointing someone to head the office.

According to a Reuters report this afternoon, the front runner for the post appears to be Frank Kramer, an assistant defense secretary under President Bill Clinton.

The Reuters story quoted an unnamed source with "direct knowledge of the matter" as saying the appointment could happen within the next two weeks. The story also quotes Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the federal government, as saying he had interviewed candidates for the position recently, and that a coordinator would be named in the "not too distant future."

If it does happen, the appointment will come not a moment too soon. When Obama first announced the new White House office in May, the news was greeted with considerable enthusiasm. Many saw it as a sign of the administration's willingness to give cybersecurity issues the long overdue attention they deserved. Those who had supported the creation of such an office had hoped that a White House cybersecurity coordinator would have the clout need to enforce government wide change on cybersecurity matters.

In the weeks following Obama's announcement, however, much of that initial enthusiasm has waned and has been replaced instead by a growing sense of frustration over the way the office has been positioned within the executive offices of the White House.

Far from being the game-changing role that some had hoped it would be, the new position is increasingly being seen as one that has been watered down to the point of inconsequence. Increasingly many see it more as a bureaucratic and consultative role with no real authority to effect change especially because the coordinator will be required to report both to the National Security Council and the National Economic Council.

It is a perception that has been reinforced both by the inexplicable delay in naming a cybersecurity coordinator and by rumors that there are few takers in Washington for the role. Numerous candidates, including Microsoft's Scott Charney, Congressman Tom Davis, Good Harbor Consulting's Paul Kurtz and others are rumored to have turned down the role over concerns about their ability to influence real change.

Melissa Hathaway, who was Obama's acting cybersecurity chief, was at one time rumored to be a frontrunner for the post. She has espoused the creation of such White House role in a report she handed to the Obama administration after a 60-day government-wide review of cybersecurity preparedness in April.

However, Hathaway resigned from her role in early August, and expressed no interest in taking up the cybersecurity coordinator job.

Though Kramer's name has been floating around as a possible contender for a few weeks now, his appointment would still be somewhat a surprise considering that he is not especially well known in Washington cyber-security circles, say some.

"Frank Kramer definitely has a strong background in international security and Department of Defense/NATO workings," said John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "[But] he really hasn't been involved in any major way on the cybersecurity side of things either back in the Clinton days or certainly not during the Bush administration, other than I think some recent think tank work and speaking [engagements]."

While Kramer might make a good fit for the job as defined, the position could well be another "tall hat, no cattle" kind of figurehead position, he said.

If Kramer does get appointed, it would be a "spectacular choice," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute. "Frank is a person who has proven time and again that he can make important things happen, and was extremely successful even in a huge bureaucracy like the DoD," Paller said. Appointing him would be a much better choice than some of the other names that have been mentioned as contenders for the office, he said.

Karen Evans, former de facto CIO of the federal government under the Bush Administration, said that she does not know Kramer personally. "But people whom I really respect think very highly of him," Evans said. "I have also heard the announcement would be in October, which makes sense since it is national cybersecurity awareness month."

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