Help (still) wanted: Cybersecurity czar

Department of Homeland Security trumpeted the creation of a cybersecurity chief post a year ago. But it's still vacant. Why?

Exactly one year after its creation, a high-level cybersecurity czar post within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security remains vacant, drawing new criticism from politicians and technology industry groups.

On July 13, 2005, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the creation of an assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications post as part of his "six-point agenda" to reorganize the sprawling agency.

Currently, the agency's top cybersecurity officer is a low- to mid-level position further removed from the secretary. The new official, charged with leading the government's responses to threats and attacks, is supposed to report directly to the undersecretary for preparedness, one of three top level officials who answer directly to Chertoff.

"It's apparent that the department is moving at dial-up speed in hardening this infrastructure to respond to cyberattacks," Rep. Bernie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who serves as co-chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Thursday. The vacancy has also inspired outrage from his colleague, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren.

Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen said the department is "close to the final stages of the hiring process" and should be naming a candidate soon, though he wasn't sure precisely when that would occur.

He admitted, however, that the process has been challenging, since the government must compete with the higher salaries and other perks, such as stock options, dangled by the private sector.

"It takes a unique candidate to make the personal and professional sacrifice to join a relatively young organization like DHS and take on the responsibility and the criticism that they'll encounter in that very demanding role," he said.

But without a strong leader in charge, it's unclear how well the nation would be able to respond to cyber-catastrophes, critics charged.

"It is indicative of the ongoing lack of attention being paid to cybersecurity at the most senior levels of government," said Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, an advocacy group with security companies as its members. "There is no shortage of qualified candidates to serve as assistant secretary, just as there is no shortage of hackers eager to wreak havoc on our information infrastructure and national economy."

The Business Software Alliance, whose members include Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Dell and Microsoft, took a gentler tack in voicing its concerns. In a three-paragraph letter to Chertoff dated July 12, President Robert Holleyman said he appreciated the position's creation and was "hopeful" a qualified individual would be appointed "in the near future."

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