White House appoints cybersecurity chief

New Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt promises to develop strategies to protect U.S. networks, beef up technology partnerships, and promote R&D.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

New cybersecurity chief Howard Schmidt
New cybersecurity chief Howard Schmidt The White House

The White House's new cybersecurity chief faces a tough agenda, but will be able to draw on the lessons of a 40-year career, including stints at Microsoft and eBay.

Former security adviser Howard Schmidt is returning to the White House as President Obama's new cybersecurity coordinator, the White House announced Tuesday.

In his new role, Schmidt will report to the National Security Council. Schmidt will also "have regular access to the president," said an official who spoke to The New York Times.

Earlier this year, President Obama initiated a review of the government's cybersecurity policies in an effort to streamline operations. Turf wars among various agencies and a perceived weakness in the Department of Homeland Security had raised red flags, prompting the president to declare that the country was not adequately prepared on the cybersecurity front.

Following that review, the White House identified a need for a new cybersecurity chief, then plunged into a tricky, months-long process that now brings Schmidt back to public service.

Barack Obama greets new White House cybersecurity chief Howard A. Schmidt.
President Barack Obama greets his new White House cybersecurity chief Howard A. Schmidt in the Cross Hall of the White House. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

In a recorded speech introducing himself, Schmidt said he sees information technology as offering great opportunities but also great dangers to national security, public safety, economic competitiveness, and personal privacy. As dependence on technology increases, he said, the need to protect our security and privacy also increases.

As such, Schmidt said that the president has directed him to focus on several key areas:

• developing a new and comprehensive strategy to secure U.S. networks to ensure an organized response to future cyber incidents;
• beefing up both public and private partnerships in the U.S. and abroad;
• promoting research and development of next-generation technologies;
• and leading a national campaign to promote cybersecurity, awareness, and education.

Acknowledging that Washington can't solve cybersecurity problems on its own, Schmidt said his agenda is to bring together the government, the private sector, and other stakeholders as part of a new and comprehensive cyberstrategy to strengthen online defenses.

Following Schmidt's appointment, a variety of security analysts offered their thoughts.

In a Tuesday blog post, Randy Abrams of security vendor ESET said that Schmidt is very smart and personable, possessing a depth of knowledge and experience that makes him one of the best possible candidates for the job. But Abrams cautioned people not to expect miracles or fast changes as Schmidt will face huge obstacles trying to coordinate security across different government agencies, most of which have people who think their way is the only way to do things.

Phillip Dunkelberger, president and CEO of security vendor PGP, where Schmidt serves on the board of directors, said: "Howard's familiarity with public sector, private sector, large vendors and small innovative companies should be a great asset to this unique position; one that will just expand as our nation's dependency on cyber communications continues to grow." He also stressed that Schmidt will need to jump in quickly and form a solid working relationship with the Department of Defense and with the federal government's chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, and chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra.

Schmidt brings to his new post a lengthy resume of government service, with a particular niche in computer crimes and forensics. Early in his career, he worked for the FBI's National Drug Intelligence Center, where he ran the Computer Exploitation Team. He also was a special agent and program director for the Air Force, where he set up one of the government's first dedicated computer forensic labs.

His new post will be Schmidt's second stint at the White House. In December 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, he was appointed vice chairman for President Bush's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board and deputy to former White House cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke. Schmidt left his post in February 2003 to return to the private sector. During his tenure with the Bush administration, he helped create a new cybersecurity plan, which at the time was criticized as being too watered down, a charge that Schmidt disputed.

In the private sector, Schmidt served as chief security officer for Microsoft from 1997 to 2001 before joining the White House. After leaving his government post, he joined eBay in 2003 as vice president for security.

More recently, Schmidt was the president and CEO of the Information Security Forum, an international nonprofit organization that focuses on risks and research in the cyberworld.

Updated December 23, 4:00 a.m. PST with comments from security analysts.