By Ellen Nakashima and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 11:41 AM
Seven months after President Obama vowed to "personally select" an adviser to orchestrate the government's strategy for protecting computer systems, the White House on Tuesday tapped a former Bush administration official for the job.
Howard A. Schmidt, who was a cyber-adviser in President George W. Bush's White House, will be Obama's new cybersecurity coordinator, an administration official said Monday night. A letter announcing the appointment was posted on the White House Web site early Tuesday.
The letter said Schmidt will "have regular access to the President and serve as a key member of his National Security Staff. He will also work closely with his economic team to ensure that our cybersecurity efforts keep the Nation secure and prosperous."
Schmidt, who declined to comment Monday, will have a challenging mission: to coordinate cybersecurity policy across the federal government, from the military to civilian agencies. His appointment comes as the Pentagon launches a major new "cyber-command" unit up and running and the Department of Homeland Security works to improve protection of civilian networks.
In May, Obama declared the nation's digital networks a "strategic national asset" and said protecting them would be a "national security priority." Creating a White House cybersecurity office, run by a senior White House official, would be key to that effort, he said. "I'll depend on this official in all matters relating to cybersecurity, and this official will have my full support and regular access to me as we confront these challenges," Obama said from the East Room.
But his remarks were undercut by internal tension over how much authority the "cyber-czar" would have and to whom the official would report. White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers insisted that the new coordinator report to him as well, arguing that cybersecurity is also a matter of national economic security, sources said.
Schmidt, who does not require Senate confirmation, will report to deputy national security adviser John O. Brennan. In the letter announcing his appointment, Brennan called Schmidt "one of the world's leading authorities on computer security, with some 40 years of experience in government, business and law enforcement."
Schmidt was chosen after a long process in which dozens of people were sounded out. Many declined the post, largely out of concern that the job conferred much responsibility with little true authority, some of them said.
The cybersecurity chief at the National Security Council, Christopher Painter, has served as the de facto coordinator, trying to push ahead the 60-day cyberspace policy review plan unveiled by Obama in May. That plan's formulation was led by Melissa Hathaway, who resigned in frustration in August after delays in naming a cyber-coordinator.
Schmidt's résumé reflects experience in the private sector, law enforcement and government. Schmidt served as special adviser for cyberspace security from 2001 to 2003 and shepherded the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, a plan that then was largely ignored. He left that job frustrated, colleagues said.
Before he joined the Bush White House, he worked as chief security officer at Microsoft. He then became vice president and chief information security officer at eBay. He served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1983 in various roles, both active-duty and civilian, and headed the computer exploitation team at the FBI's National Drug Intelligence Center in the 1990s.
He is now president of the Information Security Forum, a nonprofit consortium of corporations and public-sector organizations working to resolve cybercrime and cybersecurity issues.
"He has many of the qualities and connections that one would think would be good for the position," said a colleague who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid. "He is a team player. I don't have high expectations for that position as it is currently defined, so he's very possibly overqualified for it."
Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.