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DHS bears brunt of criticism at House cybersecurity hearing

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

March 11, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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