Former Bush official blasts gov’t cybersecurity

U.S. President George W. Bush’s former cybersecurity advisor blasted his old boss’ efforts within the federal government, and another expert called for Congress to force companies to pay attention to cybersecurity during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

The Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security is moving too slowly in organizing its National Cyber Security Center, and the White House Office of Management and Budget needs to hire a full-time chief information security officer to focus on cybersecurity, said Richard Clarke, former special advisor to the president for cyberspace security.

The president’s National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, released in mid-February, cannot move forward without the Homeland Security cybersecurity center, Clarke said, who left the White House two months ago and is now a consultant. The department has failed to “recruit a cadre of nationally recognized cybersecurity experts,” he said.

“I would hope that with cybersecurity we can do more to raise our defenses before we have a major disaster,” Clarke added. “The problems we’ve had to date are minor compared to the potential.”

Clarke, testifying at the House Committee on Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, also called on Congress to fund vulnerability scanning sensors on all federal networks and recommended federal agencies outsource their cybersecurity projects and withhold money from the vendors if the agencies get failing cybersecurity grades.

Michael Vatis, director of the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth College, agreed with Clarke that the U.S. government response to cybersecurity is lacking. Hundreds of cybersecurity jobs, including top posts, that were to move from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Computer Incident Response Center and other agencies to the new Homeland Security Department are unfilled, he noted.

“It could take over a year before we get back to where we were in our ability to respond to cyberattacks,” Vatis said, blaming a “gaping void” in leadership from the Bush administration.

But Mark Forman, associate director of information security and electronic government for the White House Office of Management and Budget, defended the Bush administration efforts to make federal agencies more secure.

The number of federal systems meeting several cybersecurity goals have risen rapidly since 2001, Forman said. In 2001, only 40 percent of federal systems had up-to-date system security plans, he said, and by 2002, that number had risen to 61 percent. Forman said he’d match those improvements against any company in the private sector, although he admitted the numbers are “still too low.”

Forman assured the committee that cybersecurity is a top priority in the Bush administration, and he noted that the Homeland Security Department has only been an official agency since March 1. As the department organizes, Congress will see “significant action” in the area of cybersecurity, he added.

“I pledge to you that the administration is focused on (cybersecurity) all the way to the highest level,” Forman told the committee.

Clarke disputed Forman’s claim that the federal government matches up with cybersecurity efforts in the private sector. He singled out the banking industry as one area where cybersecurity is taken more seriously than in the U.S. government. That’s the case, he said, because banks usually have high-ranking officers responsible for security.

“Who is the highest level official in the Department of Homeland Security whose full-time job is cybersecurity?” Clarke asked. “What office in the Department of Homeland Security does nothing but cybersecurity? How many people in OMB have that full-time responsibility? The answers to those questions are pretty frightening.”

Forman didn’t answer Clarke’s questions, instead saying cybersecurity shouldn’t be separated from the other responsibilities of agency chief information officers.

Bush and former President Bill Clinton have used a “soapbox strategy” by urging the private owners of more than three-quarters of the cyber infrastructure in the U.S. to pay attention to cybersecurity, Vatis said. But those presidential soapboxes are just words, he added, and Congress should consider new regulations modeled after federal medical privacy laws to provide incentives to private companies.

Vatis mentioned a couple of incentives, including tax incentives for improving security technology and requiring publicly traded companies to disclose the results of independent security audits in their reports to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Congress could also require companies to report security lapses, he said.

But Clarke and Forman disagreed that companies should make public specific security problems, saying keeping customers happy is a better incentive for private companies to protect private information than any bill Congress could pass. Clarke agreed with subcommittee chairman Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, who suggested that encouraging the use of cybersecurity insurance, and then examining the premiums paid, should show which companies are working harder to prevent breaches.

“I think we want to avoid regulation,” Clarke said. “The thought of having federal cybersecurity regulation or federal cybersecurity police scares me to death.”

Fourteen of 24 major federal agencies received failing cybersecurity grades in a congressional report released in Nov. 2002. “What are we doing wrong?” he asked. “That’s just unacceptable.”

Putnam asked if other national governments were doing better than the U.S., and both Clarke and Vatis agreed that none were. “The good news is nobody’s ahead of us,” Clarke said. “The bad news is we’re pretty bad. As long as we have well-known vulnerabilities that are cheaply exploited, someone will do it.”

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