DHS bears brunt of criticism at House cybersecurity hearing

GAO official, other witnesses say DHS isn't meeting its leadership responsibilities

Efforts to develop comprehensive cybersecurity defenses and threat-response capabilities within the federal government continue to be hampered by a lack of leadership, planning and enforcement, according to witnesses who testified at a congressional hearing yesterday.

The five witnesses, including representatives from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Microsoft Corp. and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), presented a sobering picture of the current state of national cybersecurity initiatives and highlighted a variety of issues that they said need to be addressed on a high-priority basis by the Obama administration.

The biggest challenge identified at the hearing, which was held by a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, was what those who testified described as ineffective leadership by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on the implementation of cybersecurity policies.

Amit Yoran, former director of the National Cyber Security Division at the DHS and currently CEO of security vendor NetWitness Corp., said that the agency had demonstrated "inefficiency and leadership failure" in its cybersecurity efforts to date. Yoran also blasted the DHS for failing to attract or retain people with the required technical and leadership skills, pointing as an example to the impending resignation of Rod Beckstrom from his job as director of the year-old National Cyber Security Center.

While there have been "pockets of progress" on cybersecurity within the DHS, the agency is being held back by too much "administrative incompetence" and "political infighting," Yoran claimed.

He and others also contended that the DHS lacks the influence and authority needed to enforce security policy requirements across the government.

David Powner, director of IT management issues at the GAO, said it has become obvious that the DHS isn't living up to its responsibilities as the lead agency on cybersecurity issues. The question now, Powner added, is whether the DHS should still be allowed to have the leadership role or should be involved just from an operational standpoint, with another government entity taking the helm. GAO officials "think the latter" option is better, he said.

In fact, the National Security Agency already is playing an expanding role in federal cybersecurity efforts — a development that Beckstrom cited as the main reason for his decision to resign and that drew criticism from some witnesses and members of the House committee at yesterday's hearing.

In his testimony, Powner also outlined several recommendations that the GAO made in a report released yesterday (download PDF). The recommendations include the need for a clearly articulated national strategy on cybersecurity with specific goals and priorities, a formal governance structure for implementing the strategy and a direct White House role in leading and overseeing national cybersecurity policies.

Without such changes, federal efforts to secure critical systems will continue to fall short of what's required, the GAO said in the report.

Although there appeared to be a broad consensus about the continuing leadership failures of the DHS at the hearing, almost everyone who spoke also seemed to agree that the agency has an indispensable role on the operational side of cybersecurity programs.

Scott Charney, vice president of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, said that what's critical is to get the "organizational structure" right at the DHS and give it an appropriate cybersecurity role. That should involve working with the NSA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology "to decide what the minimum bar is for security" across the federal government, said Charney, who added that the DHS needs to clearly spell out which security controls are required and which are recommended.

A DHS spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the criticisms leveled at the agency during the hearing. But in a statement sent via e-mail in response to questions about Beckstrom's resignation and the NSA's involvement in cybersecurity matters, the DHS defended itself, saying it "has a strong relationship with the NSA and continues to work in close collaboration with all of our federal partners on protecting federal civilian networks."

Yesterday's hearing was held in the midst of a 60-day review of federal cybersecurity programs that was ordered by President Barack Obama and is being led by Melissa Hathaway, who worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the Bush administration.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the subcommittee that held the hearing, called on Hathaway to focus on three key issues in her review: the need for a national cybersecurity strategy, high-level leadership concerns, and any policy and legal shortfalls that might hamper future cybersecurity efforts. Clarke also noted that there already have been numerous reports on how to improve the country's cybersecurity standing. "What has been lacking is the courage and leadership to actually implement these recommendations," she said.

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