White House meeting aimed at asserting cybersecurity leadership

Obama's presence at cybersecurity coordinator's meeting sends right message at right time, say analysts

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The White House meeting on cybersecurity held on Wednesday appears to have been as much about assessing progress on the president's cybersecurity agenda as it was on showing executive branch leadership on the issue.

The meeting was convened by White House cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt and was briefly attended by President Obama. Among the 150 people or so who were present at the meeting were Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and cybersecurity officials from the FBI, the Department of Defense and several other agencies.

A lot of what was discussed at the meeting was a recap of the progress that has been made since Obama released his Cyberspace Policy Review at a White House briefing in May 2009, said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute.

Obama pointed to his administration's investments in broadband and electronic health records, its plans for a coordinated cyber response plan and strengthened public-private partnerships, said Paller, who attended the meeting.

Schmidt, meanwhile, highlighted the recently released National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) and the soon-to-be-released National Cyber Incident Response Plan (NCIRP) as important examples of the steps that have been taken to bolster security since Obama's speech last May.

In a report card released Wednesday, Schmidt also listed numerous other items, including his own appointment, and the creation of new performance metrics for federal agencies as examples of forward movement on cybersecurity matters.

But a lot of the meeting was also about showing that the White House can still lead on the issue, said Paller.

"They were losing the public leadership role to the Congress," Paller said. "I think this was a pretty good attempt to say 'We get it. We've made some progress, there's more to do, let's move forward together.'"

Wednesday's White House meeting came just days after seven senior Senators had sent a letter to President Obama urging more direct action from him on cybersecurity matters.

The letter, signed by Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and others, said "executive branch leadership" is key to improved cybersecurity. It sought the president's help in passing cybersecurity legislation through Congress and called for a "whole-of-government" approach to information security.

The meeting also comes on the heels of a critical report by the Government Accountability Office that slammed the White House Office of Science and Technology for failing to coordinate a national cybersecurity R&D agenda.

Though many of the problems identified in the report predate the Obama Administration, the report has added to the feeling that the White House needs to lead more strongly on cybersecurity.

There's no indication that the meeting was prompted by either the letter or by the GAO report. But Obama's presence at the meeting, and the fact that it was attended by top leadership from the Department of Homeland Security and the Commerce Department, sends the right message at the right time, said one attendee, who did not wish to be identified.

Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance and one of those who attended the meeting, said Obama's presence at the meeting showed "the high priority that the administration is putting on cybersecurity."

"The administration and Mr. Schmidt made it clear they are not just writing a new document," articulating a cyberstrategy, Clinton said. Rather, he explained, the focus was more on identifying what's been achieved so far and what needs to be done going forward.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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