In the Loop: White House Still Seeks Cyber-Chief (One of the Lesser Czars)

Go ahead, White House staffers, drink up. It's on the Navy's tab.
Go ahead, White House staffers, drink up. It's on the Navy's tab. (By Paul Sakuma -- Associated Press)
By Al Kamen
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In an East Room speech at the end of May, President Obama declared a new "strategic national asset": the computer networks our country depends on to keep trains running and planes from colliding, to control weapons systems and allow banks to process payments. He also promised to "personally" select a White House cybersecurity coordinator to advise him on all things cyber and to coordinate cyber-policies across the government.

Two months later, White House staffers have approached a number of prospects, but there's still no white smoke, our colleague Ellen Nakashima reports, and several said "no thanks."

Those who have politely declined a prospective vetting include former Virginia congressman Tom Davis (R), Microsoft exec Scott Charney, Symantec Chairman John W. Thompson (whose interest was gauged months ago) and retired Air Force Gen. Harry D. Raduege Jr., a former director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

What's not to like about being Obama's cyber-czar?

First, you're not really a czar, reporting as you would to national security adviser Jim Jones and White House economic adviser Larry Summers. "What real authority do you have?" said one of those who demurred. "Who's going to go to Jim Jones and say, 'This is what you need to do?'. . . Do you have the president behind you?"

Second, "It's a huge, huge turf war. You have Defense fighting the Treasury fighting the intel groups fighting Homeland Security" for control, he said.

"The sheep," said cyber-expert Jim Lewis, "don't want a shepherd."

Lewis described the job as "bag-holder in chief -- if something bad happens, you're responsible for cybersecurity, even if you don't have the authority to pull it off."

So far, CongressDaily reported Monday, former White House special adviser and longtime government computer security expert Howard Schmidt and former Clinton administration assistant defense secretary Frank Kramer are seen as front-runners for the job.

"The president is personally committed to finding the right person for this job, and a rigorous selection process is well underway," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

USS Caffeine

One of the great benefits of working in the White House has got to be the perks. And one of the best perks may be the endless stream of soft drinks -- or pop, as we say in the Midwest -- both diet and sugared up, free for the taking at the White House mess. The drinks are provided by the Navy, which runs the mess.

These freebies are gratefully guzzled down by the White House staff, as they have been for at least the past 40 years. The government largess can save the addicted substantial sums of money. For example, let's pick a random staffer, say Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, known to be fond of diet drinks. Assume he's on the high-consumption end of the scale and drinks six Diet Cokes a day. (We hear it's 10, but that seems a lot.)

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