Obama Aides Debate Role Of Proposed Cyber Czar

The Washington Post's Spencer Hsu explains how the Department of Homeland Security is bolstering its efforts to prevent cyber security attacks on its systems. Video by Emily Kotecki/The Washington Post
By Ellen Nakashima and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The nation's top military, intelligence and homeland security officials are recommending that President Obama establish a new White House cyber czar under the National Security Council with broad policy-setting authority for protecting both public- and private-sector computer networks, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

Other top administration officials, at a Friday meeting of Cabinet members and other presidential advisers, argued that the new official -- a deputy assistant to the president -- should also report to the National Economic Council, said sources familiar with the discussions.

In recent weeks, White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers and others have expressed concern that security measures not unduly threaten economic growth and other national interests. Obama aides concluded at the meeting that the new official's role would be limited to security and not broader cyber policy issues, such as tax or antitrust matters.

The debate caps a comprehensive review initiated by Obama of the U.S. government's cyber policies and programs. The varied options are now being put before Obama, who will make the final decision about the scope and authority of the new official's role, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal policy matter. A decision could come as early as next week, sources said.

As a candidate last year, Obama pledged to "appoint a national cyber adviser who will report directly to me." In fact, the review has prompted vigorous debate over how much power to give the position, whether measured by closeness to the president, staff, budget authority or ability to reach into the operations of government departments and the private sector.

Security officials have cited the threat to national security posed by the mounting capabilities of criminal, terrorist or potentially state-supported hackers in countries such as Russia and China.

"The United States must treat cybersecurity as one of the most important national security challenges it faces," stated a report issued in December by a commission formed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The report recommended that the president appoint an assistant and set up a National Office for Cyberspace to oversee the intelligence community's and Homeland Security Department's cyber operations.

James A. Lewis, who directed the CSIS project, said the recommendation to name a deputy assistant to the president appears "to match the broad outlines" of the commission's report, but it depends on what's in "the rest of the package."

"The bottom line is, whatever title this person has, if they don't have real authority, then they will not be effective," said Richard A. Clarke, a security adviser to the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Turf fights have complicated the review, which was supposed to last 60 days but just hit the three-month mark. The sides were evident at Friday's meeting, which was chaired by Summers, national security adviser James L. Jones and his deputy, John O. Brennan, representing White House economic, national security and homeland security councils.

Several sources said Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair argued that the cyber official should report to Jones. That view was backed by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, one source said.

A senior White House official said anyone criticizing the cyber coordinator's rank "misses a much broader understanding of the question -- namely that this person would be doing work of immense interest . . . to the president himself."

Clarke said yesterday that if the White House fails to give the cyber adviser authority through the Office of Management and Budget over federal budgets and through the National Economic Council to work with the private sector, "I don't think it's going to get very far."

Obama has to ask "some tough questions," Clarke said, "because this is a growing issue, of growing importance, and we have to get it right."

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