Politics keeps the U.S. from securing private-sector networks, says former CIA chief Robert Gates

robert gates
Credit: Reuters File Photo

ORLANDO, Fla. -- A person who had access to the nation's deepest secrets, Robert Gates, the former CIA chief and U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, is a lot more open in retirement.

Gates had the crowd at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo laughing over his observations about IT and applauding at some of the things he believes in.

On stage here, for instance, Gartner analyst Richard Hunter fired off questions, asking at one point whether Edward Snowden, the former security contract employee who in 2010 took thousands of classified documents, was a "traitor or hero?"

"Traitor," said Gates, prompting applause from the audience of IT managers, who routinely deal with their own insider and outsider threats. As the applause faded, Gates added: "And he hasn't been given sanctuary in Russia for nothing."

Gates, whose military career extends back into late 1960s, regaled the audience with some ancient technological stories.

For instance, before the era of digital photography, the U.S. sent satellites with cameras and Kodak film to take photos. Once the film was used up, the satellite would eject a film-bearing capsule, which deployed a parachute on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

It was the job of the pilot of a Lockheed C-130 Hercules to use a hook to capture the capsule before it hit the water. "Woe to the pilot who missed the canister," said Gates, to audience laughter.

When digital photography arrived in the 1970s, the intelligence agencies faced new problems, namely managing and analyzing the volumes of data. Problems of this sort helped propel IT spending by the Defense Department, sometimes to dead ends.

"I have wasted more taxpayer money on IT than anybody in history," said a smiling Gates to an applauding audience.

On a more serious note, Gates argued that the U.S. has the technological capability to help protect private-sector networks, but policy disagreements and politics are preventing it.

Gates divided cyberthreats into four areas. There is the collection of data for national security purposes, which the U.S. has been doing since the Civil War when it tapped into telegraph lines.

The second threat is acquiring information for economic advantage. There are two dozens countries that do this, said Gates. "Until the Chinese really got busy at it, the best in the world probably were the French."

But Gates said the U.S. and U.K. do not engage in this type of economic spying. "We do not collect information to advantage our domestic companies," he said.

The third area is simple cybercrime, and the fourth is technology as a defensive weapon, such as disabling networks and denial-of-service and other attacks.

Gates said the Defense Department does a "pretty good job" of defending its networks in the .mil world. The areas most at risk are .com and .gov networks.

In 2010, working with the Department of Homeland Security, Gates said a plan was  developed to allow the DHS to appoint a deputy director at the National Security Agency. The deputy director would have the ability to order the NSA to protect a private network when under attack from a foreign source. President Barack Obama approved the plan.

But once other agencies and lawmakers learned of the NSA plan, opposition arose and it was never implemented. Business cooperation was needed as well.

This approach was needed, argued Gates.

"Those who are waiting for a domestic agency to be created to protect our domestic networks have a long wait. It's not going to happen. There is not enough money. There is not enough human capital. There's not enough time to build a domestic NSA," he said.

"As with, it seems, everything else, because of the politics of the issue, we're kind of nowhere" in using government resources to protect private networks, he said.

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