Obama Says He Will Name National Cybersecurity Adviser

President Barack Obama says the nation for too long has failed to adequately protect the security of its computer networks, and he will name a new cyber czar to take on the job. Video by AP
By Ellen Nakashima and Brian Krebs
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 30, 2009

President Obama used a White House speech yesterday to try to raise national concern about threats to computer networks, drawing praise from some industry executives and lawmakers but criticism from others who said his initiatives do not go far enough.

Obama said he will name a senior White House official to coordinate government efforts to protect a "strategic national asset": the digital networks that handle phone calls, e-mails, government and military data, and also control power grids, nuclear plants and airplane traffic.

Obama was doing what his predecessors had not: addressing the issue in a highly public way, under the chandeliers of the East Room, before an audience of Cabinet members, industry executives and privacy advocates. He noted that the very networks that allow Americans to bank and shop online are also targets for those who can turn a computer into a "weapon of mass disruption."

"We're not as prepared as we should be," he said, "as a government or as a country."

His speech was nearly in line with a campaign promise to make the issue a priority and appoint what he then called a national cyberadviser who would report directly to him.

Obama said yesterday the new cybersecurity coordinator would have "regular access to me." His speech, which was accompanied by the release of a strategy report, comes as the Pentagon plans to set up a new cybercommand to develop cyber weapons for use in responding to attacks from foreign adversaries.

"It's a thoughtful report that is cautious about what needs to be done," said Stewart A. Baker, assistant secretary for Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. "But it doesn't try to provide substantive answers to some of the security concerns that quite legitimately the government has."

Left unanswered in the White House's 38-page Cyberspace Policy Review are several major questions: How will the nation respond in the face of a major cyberattack? How can the United States persuade other nations to help defend the global Internet? What should be the role of the U.S. intelligence community in protecting private-sector networks?

To assuage concerns that a government agency such as the National Security Agency might tap into phone calls or e-mails, Obama stressed: "Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not -- I repeat, will not include -- monitoring private networks or Internet traffic." He noted that the new office will have a privacy and civil liberties officer.

The military's effort will be led by Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, and will be launched in early June, according to several cybersecurity experts who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Obama did not mention the Pentagon cybercommand in his remarks yesterday.

The White House had said the report, which was the result of a 60-day review of cyberprograms, would not offer detailed policy prescriptions.

The cybercoordinator will be a member of the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, Obama said, an acknowledgment that the threat is both to national security and to the economy. The official will coordinate government cybersecurity policies, work with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure agencies have enough money to defend their systems, and coordinate the response to a major cyberattack, Obama said.

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