The Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is moving too slowly in organising its National Cybersecurity Centre, and the White House Office of Management and Budget needs to hire a full-time chief information security officer to focus on cybersecurity, said Richard Clarke, former special advisor to the president for cyberspace security.
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The president's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, released in mid-February, cannot move forward without the Homeland Security cybersecurity centre, Clarke said, who left the White House two months ago and is now a consultant.
The department has failed to "recruit a cadre of nationally recognised cybersecurity experts", he said.
"I would hope that with cybersecurity we can do more to raise our defences before we have a major disaster," Clarke added. "The problems we’ve had to date are minor compared to the potential."
Clarke also called on congress to fund vulnerability scanning sensors on all federal networks and recommended federal agencies outsource their cybersecurity projects and withhold money from the suppliers if the agencies get failing cybersecurity grades.
Michael Vatis, director of the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth College, agreed with Clarke that the US government response to cybersecurity is lacking.
Hundreds of cybersecurity jobs, including top posts that were to move from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Computer Incident Response Centre and other agencies to the Homeland Security Department remain unfilled.
"It could take over a year before we get back to where we were in our ability to respond to cyber attacks," Vatis said, blaming a "gaping void" in leadership from the Bush administration.
But Mark Forman, associate director of information security and electronic government for the White House Office of Management and Budget, defended the Bush administration efforts to make federal agencies more secure.
The number of federal systems meeting several cybersecurity goals has risen rapidly since 2001, Forman said. In 2001, only 40% of federal systems had up-to-date system security plans.
By 2002, that number had risen to 61%. Forman said he would match those improvements against any company in the private sector, although he admitted the numbers are "still too low".
Forman insisted that cybersecurity was a top priority in the Bush administration, and he noted that the Homeland Security Department has only been an official agency since 1 March. As the department organises, congress will see "significant action" in the area of cybersecurity, he added.
"I pledge to you that the administration is focused on [cybersecurity] all the way to the highest level," Forman told the committee.
Clarke disputed Forman's claim that the federal government matches up with cybersecurity efforts in the private sector. He singled out the banking industry as one area where cybersecurity is taken more seriously than in the US government. Banks usually have high-ranking officers responsible for security.
"Who is the highest level official in the Department of Homeland Security whose full-time job is cybersecurity?" Clarke asked. "What office in the Department of Homeland Security does nothing but cybersecurity? How many people in OMB have that full-time responsibility? The answers to those questions are pretty frightening."
Forman did not answer Clarke's questions, instead saying that cybersecurity should not be separated from the other responsibilities of agency chief information officers.