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Obama expected to announce cybersecurity revamp, new 'czar'

A 60-day review of the Feds' computer and Internet security efforts is complete, but recommendations are likely to be divisive.

President Obama on Friday is expected to unveil his administration's plans to deal with cybersecurity threats to federal agencies and the private sector, including the creation of a White House "cyber czar."

It's not yet clear who that person will be, or even whether Obama will name someone during his announcement. As part of a political compromise, the new position is expected to be folded into both the National Security Council and National Economic Council.

The announcement, which is scheduled to take place at 10:55 a.m. ET in the White House's East Room, caps years of criticism of the Department of Homeland Security's efforts and months of speculation about what form the replacement cybersecurity bureaucracy will take.

"It provides the president with recommendations for a White House organizational structure that can effectively address cyberspace-related issues," Melissa Hathaway, acting cyberspace director for the White House's National Security and Homeland Security councils, said recently.

No bureaucratic mandate will satisfy everyone: Security hawks would like the "czar" to have authority -- which may mean new laws -- to direct both federal agencies and private businesses on cybersecurity matters. Business representatives, on the other hand, like the potential for increased high-level attention but remain wary of mandates from Washington.

In February, Obama ordered a 60-day review of the federal government's cybersecurity efforts, and appointed Hathaway -- who had worked for the director of national intelligence in the Bush administration -- to lead it. Two months later, Hathaway announced the report had been submitted to the president along with recommendations; it's expected to be made public on Friday.

Earlier this week, the White House offered a hint about how the restructuring would proceed, and indicated that the "czar" would not report directly to the president. Obama's statement on Tuesday said the national security and homeland security staff would be integrated and new positions inside the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council would "deal with new and emerging 21st Century challenges associated with cybersecurity."

In addition, The New York Times reported on Friday that the Pentagon is preparing a new military command for cyberspace that would operate in parallel with the civilian effort that Obama is expected to announce. He is "expected to sign a classified order in coming weeks that will create the military cybercommand" and recognize "that the United States already has a growing number of computer weapons in its arsenal and must prepare strategies for their use," the newspaper said.

Bureaucratic roadblocks
The origin of many of the Feds' cybersecurity headaches can be traced back to the process that led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security nearly seven years ago. Politicians in Washington, D.C. decided to decided to glue together a medley of federal agencies to create a massive bureaucracy that would, as one of its new goals, provide a better focus on cybersecurity.

"The department will gather and focus all our efforts to face the challenge of cyberterrorism," President Bush said when signing the 500-or-so-page bill into law in November 2002. "This department will be charged with encouraging research on new technologies that can detect these threats in time to prevent an attack."

Some tasks might benefit from centralization in one of the world's largest bureaucracies. But it soon became evident that cybersecurity was not one of them. By 2005, government auditors concluded that the department failed to live up to its cybersecurity responsibilities and may be "unprepared" for emergencies; as recently as last fall, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agency needed to develop a plan to respond to a "cybercrisis."

That led some outside groups to argue that cybersecurity efforts should be taken over by the National Security Agency, which already is responsible for protecting government computers through its "information assurance" arm, or perhaps the White House staff.

Lending an unusual spice to what would normally be a internecine power struggle conducted in secret was March's resignation of Rod Beckström, director of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity Center. In his farewell letter, Beckström blasted what he said was an NSA power grab, saying the secretive military agency "effectively controls DHS cyber efforts through detailees, technology insertions."

The week before Beckström's resignation, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair suggested to a House committee that the NSA was ready for the job, saying "there are some wizards out there at Fort Meade." But a few weeks later, after a congressional hearing that was hardly enthusiastic about the idea, NSA director Keith Alexander denied his agency had any interest in the job.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. About a year after President George W. Bush took office, his administration announced a highly-anticipated, 76-page document called the "National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace" (PDF). Few of its bullet points calling for immediate "response" have been enacted; even fewer people remember what they were.