Homeland Security faces leadership void

In one of his first moves as secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge this week appointed former J.P. Morgan Chase Bank executive Alfonso Martinez-Fonts Jr. to serve as special assistant to the secretary for the private sector.

But much work remains to fill key leadership positions at the newly formed U.S. Department of Homeland Security and avoid losing the momentum in the public/private partnership on cybersecurity and critical-infrastructure protection, Bush administration and private-sector officials said.

“I worry that if the transition period drags on, we’ll lose much of the gains made in establishing a trusted relationship with the leaders of critical infrastructure,” said Roger Cressey, former chief of staff of the President’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board. “It is imperative that the new department sends a clear signal to the private sector on who the key contacts are and, most important, that they are empowered to speak on behalf of the secretary.”

The sense of urgency comes as several high-level officials — who have led the government’s efforts during the past several years to build a partnership with the private sector — have either left or plan to leave government service.

Richard Clarke, whose career as the nation’s first antiterrorism coordinator and cybersecurity czar spanned three administrations, plans to retire this month, Computerworld has confirmed. Clarke was instrumental in building the current partnership with the private sector and in drafting the national strategy for the defense of cyberspace, which has been signed by the president and will be released in final form this month.

Likewise, John Tritak, long-time director of the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office (CIAO) at the U.S. Department of Commerce and another key player in the government’s private-sector outreach effort, has also made a final decision to leave public service, according to sources close to him.

Add two more names to that list. Ron Dick, director of the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) since March 2001, left the agency in December for a position at El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp.

And James Clapper, director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has backed away from an offer to lead the new department’s Information Assurance Division, sources close to the deliberations confirmed.

IT professionals’ reactions to the changes were mixed.

John Ervin, a systems administrator at Tessy Plastics LLC in Lynchburg, Va., is more concerned about who’s in the trenches. The government needs to focus more on staffing frontline technologists to work with the private sector on stopping cyberattacks, he said.

But the departure of all of these “trusted interlocutors,” as one private-sector official who spoke on condition of anonymity characterized them, means that the government is losing a lot of “institutional memory” at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty.

David Wray, a spokesman for the NIPC’s transition office at the Department of Homeland Security, said all such fears of losing momentum in reaching out to the private sector are unfounded.

“We’re bringing it all together under one roof, and we’ll actually have resources and funding that will put us in a better position,” Wray said.