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The cybersecurity job no one really wants

Perceived lack of clout robs White House cybersecurity post of luster, some say

August 5, 2009 06:53 PM ET

Computerworld - When President Obama announced in May that he was establishing a White House office for cybersecurity, the news was widely welcomed as a sign of the administration's willingness to recognize cyberthreats as a national security issue.

The need for such a role had been espoused by many in the security industry, including Obama's acting cybersecurity chief, Melissa Hathaway, who announced her resignation this week, and a 40-member commission that had developed cybersecurity recommendations for the Obama administration.

The idea was to create a central role that would be responsible for developing and enforcing a national strategy for defending the country's government and commercial interests in cyberspace.

But eight weeks after the president's announcement, and with no one named to the post yet, some have begun wondering if the delay is because there are few takers for the job. 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.

Hathaway, who was considered a contender for the role given her past experience as a cybersecurity executive for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, alluded to such issues in an interview with the Washington Post this week. She suggested to the Post the reason she had quit was because she "wasn't willing to continue to wait any longer because I'm not empowered right now to continue to drive the change." About 30 people have been interviewed for the job so far, the report said.

Among those who turned down the position were former Virginia Sen. Tom Davis, Microsoft's Scott Charney, and Good Harbor Consulting executive Paul Kurtz, who is a former senior director for critical infrastructure protection on the White House's Homeland Security team, Forbes reported last month.

In announcing her resignation, Hathaway told the White House that she did not want to be considered for the cybersecurity role, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Tom Kellerman, vice president of security awareness at Core Security Technologies, said Hathaway's decision leaves a dangerous leadership void on the cybersecurity front and highlights the challenges the White House is facing in attracting the right talent to the job. Kellerman was part of a 40-person team led by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that delivered a set of cybersecurity recommendations to the president in January.

"The position just isn't high enough in the White House food chain to attract the most qualified people," Kellerman said. It is only by elevating the position to the rank of a special adviser that it will have the clout and decision-making capabilities to enforce cybersecurity change across government, he said.

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