Lawmakers question DHS preparedness for fighting cyberattacks
A cybersecurity leader for the agency is expected 'very soon'
IDG News Service - The ongoing delay in appointing an assistant secretary for cybersecurity at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may be hindering the agency's ability to fend off cyberattacks against the nation's critical infrastructure, lawmakers suggested today.
In response, DHS Undersecretary for Preparedness George Foresman said his agency is in the final stages of reviewing the credentials of a "very qualified" individual and that the position is likely to be filled "very soon."
"This has been, and remains, a top priority" at the DHS, Foresman said during a hearing on cybersecurity for the national infrastructure. The hearing was conducted by the House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the creation of a new assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications last October. The move was widely welcomed at that time because it was seen as recognition of the need to elevate the importance of cybersecurity issues within the agency. Before Chertoff's announcement, cybersecurity issues were being handled at a director-level position at the DHS. Since Chertoff's announcement, however, the position has remained vacant.
In his opening statement at the hearing, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that the failure to appoint an assistant secretary "conveys a lack of appreciation" of the nation's cyberthreats by the DHS. Dingell noted that cyberattacks against the critical infrastructure are growing and that any failure to prepare for them could be "devastating." He added that the country shouldn't have to wait for a "massive cyberdisaster" to put plans in place.
Reacting to similar concerns from Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Foresman noted that the absence of an assistant secretary had not stopped the DHS from moving forward with response planning. "We have been in overdrive the whole time," he said.
Criticism for the DHS at today's hearing was not limited to that one issue, however. David Powner, director of IT management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), noted that DHS had so far failed to establish a comprehensive plan for responding to cyberthreats against critical infrastructure.
He said that criminal groups, foreign intelligence services and terrorists all have the ability to launch disruptive physical and cyberattacks. While the DHS developed high-level plans for infrastructure protection, components that address Internet recovery are "incomplete", Powner said. In addition, while the DHS has begun working with private industry on processes for jointly responding to cyberattacks, the initiatives are "immature" and lack deadlines for completion, he said.
Also, hampering the department's efforts to establish a recovery plan is a lack of agreement over what the agency's role should be when a disruption does occur and when it should get involved, he said. In addition, the private sector has been reluctant to share information with the DHS because "it doesn't see a value in sharing" and lacks trust in the leadership, Powner said.
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