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DHS chief: Cybersecurity efforts are 'classified'

Michael Chertoff tells politicians that protecting the nation's computer systems is top priority, but he's mum on details, including whether China has ever attempted hacks on his department.

WASHINGTON--Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday largely dodged questions from a congressional committee about the department's cybersecurity operations, including whether its computers have ever faced attacks from Chinese hackers.

Michael Chertoff

During wide-ranging testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee here, Chertoff devoted only a few sentences to his department's charge of protecting the nation's computer systems from attack. He claimed he couldn't get into many of the details because of their "classified" nature.

"I can assure you we are working with other elements of the federal government and giving the highest priority to putting together an enhanced strategy with respect to cybersecurity," he told the politicians.

DHS has been publicly blasted by Congress and government auditors in the past for failing to live up to their expectations in the cybersecurity realm. At a hearing in June, members of the same committee attacked the department's chief information officer over reports of 844 security-related "incidents"--granted, many of which were not particularly serious and did not indicate actual intrusions--on its computer systems in 2005 and 2006.

The Homeland Security chief, who's rumored to be in the running for Attorney General Gonzales' soon-to-be-vacated post, didn't divulge much more under subsequent questioning at Wednesday's event from Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who leads a cybersecurity subcommittee. In light of recent reports, which were later denied by the Chinese government, that Chinese hackers penetrated Department of Defense computer systems, Langevin asked Chertoff to reveal whether DHS computers have "ever called home to Chinese servers" or whether he knew of Chinese hackers breaking into those systems. (China was also believed to be the source of attacks on Commerce Department computers last year.)

Chertoff never directly answered the questions, saying, "this is the area which is heavily intertwined with classified information."

The purpose of the hearing, at which the DHS chief was the sole witness, was to assess "security gaps" at the agency. Democrats presented Chertoff with a "to-do list" for the remainder of his term and chided him for missing deadlines for certain administration programs. Yet some nonetheless voiced respect for his work so far and said they'd hate to see him leave the department, say, for the attorney general post.

The Homeland Security chief's response was fairly noncommittal. He said he's "happy to continue to do this job up until the very last day of the administration," that is, unless the president decides otherwise.