The White House has nominated Stewart A. Baker, a Washington lawyer with ties to the technology industry, to be assistant secretary of homeland security for policy development. Technology executives yesterday applauded the nomination as one of several signs that new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is moving to address what they see as the department's long neglect of cyber-security issues.
In a reorganization of the 180,000-employee agency announced earlier this week, Chertoff also set a higher profile for the person responsible for protecting the nation's computer and telecommunications networks. Those duties will come under a new assistant secretary position. During the administration of Secretary Tom Ridge, a cyber-security division was run by a lower-level director and kept separate from telecommunications security.
Last month, the White House nominated Scott Charbo to be chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department, in charge of the agency's internal computer systems. The systems have gotten poor grades from government auditors, while Charbo is highly regarded for his work in the same job at the Department of Agriculture.
Taken together, executives say, the moves demonstrate a knowledge of, and concern for, cyber-security that was missing among previous top homeland security officials.
"It's a trifecta," said F. William Conner, chief executive of Entrust Inc., a computer security firm. "This is what we've been looking for."
Arthur W. Coviello Jr., chief executive of RSA Security Inc., said, "Secretary Chertoff has shown early on in his tenure that he understands how technology can be better utilized to protect the homeland as well as address the vulnerabilities of the country's critical infrastructures."
With online fraud, network attacks and the potential for cyber-terrorism escalating, the department launched a splashy cyber-security initiative in late 2003, asking the industry to take the lead but vowing to help and warning that the government would step in if the private sector failed.
But after months of task force meetings, reports and industry group recommendations for how companies could better protect computer systems, top homeland security officials declined to endorse or push for them.
Amit Yoran, the agency's first head of the cyber-security division, resigned in frustration shortly before the 2004 election, followed by some others in the unit. The position has been vacant since, and technology executives and many members of Congress worried that it would be impossible to recruit a top-flight replacement unless the job's title and clout were elevated.
If confirmed to the policy development position, Baker, 58, will not be directly involved in cyber-security oversight, but his work has long involved technology and intelligence.
A onetime general counsel for the National Security Agency, Baker recently served as executive director of a trade group of Internet service providers. He also served as general counsel for the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.
In recent testimony before a public board advising the Homeland Security Department on privacy issues, he spoke at length about the underappreciated threats of bioterrorism.
Baker, who will be responsible for internal policy planning and coordination at the department, declined to comment pending his congressional confirmation hearing.