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Cybersecurity official quits, blasts NSA power grab

Rod Beckström, director of Homeland Security's secretive National Cybersecurity Center, says folding his group into the National Security Agency would endanger "our democratic processes."

A top federal cybersecurity official resigned this week in a letter sharply critical of what he described as a power grab by the National Security Agency.

Rod Beckström, director of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity Center, said in his letter that NSA "effectively controls DHS cyber efforts through detailees, technology insertions," and has proposed moving some functions to the agency's Fort Meade, Md., headquarters.

Rod Beckstrom, director of the National Cyber Security Center, gives a keynote at Black Hat last year. Elinor Mills/CNET

Beckström was picked for the job in March 2008 and reported to DHS secretaries Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano. His letter also took aim at DHS, saying the center "received only five weeks of funding" in the last year because of "roadblocks engineered within the department" and by the White House. (DHS has claimed that cybersecurity was one of Chertoff's "top four priorities for '08.")

The idea of the NSA taking over governmental cybersecurity efforts is not exactly new: it was discussed by a commission organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last fall, and the agency already has some related responsibilities. Last week, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair suggested (PDF) to a House of Representatives committee that the NSA would be an appropriate body to take over cybersecurity efforts, saying "there are some wizards out there at Fort Meade who can do stuff."

But Beckström warned that would be a mistake and could significantly threaten "our democratic processes...if all top level government network security and monitoring are handled by any one organization."

Before taking the job at DHS, Beckström co-founded CATS Software, a derivatives and risk management software company, and co-founded, a company that supports open-source wikis. A DHS undersecretary is responsible for the agency's overall cybersecurity efforts.

The National Cyber Security Center has remained partially shrouded in secrecy, with the Bush administration last summer refusing to release information about its budget, what contractors will run it, or how its mission relates to Internet surveillance--on the grounds (PDF) that disclosure could endanger "operations essential to the interests of our nation."

Initially, the White House went so far as to claim (PDF) that the mere existence of the NCSC was classified.

Beckström's resignation takes effect next Friday. Meanwhile, President Obama has assigned Melissa Hathaway, who worked for the director of national intelligence in the Bush administration and was director of an multi-agency "Cyber Task Force," to conduct a two-month review of related federal activities.