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Yet another cybersecurity chief steps down

Robert Liscouski leaves the Department of Homeland Security as the agency nominates a second person for secretary.

The Department of Homeland Security's top bureaucrat in charge of cybersecurity and physical-infrastructure protection resigned on Tuesday, as the Bush administration nominated a federal judge and prosecutor to head the agency.

The resignation of Robert Liscouski, director of the National Cyber Security Division, is the latest blow to the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity initiatives, which many industry experts have criticized as lacking leadership. In October, the agency's top cybersecurity official, Amit Yoran, resigned from the DHS amid industry calls to give the post more power.

Robert Liscouski

"There has been a revolving door on cybersecurity at the DHS," said Dan Burton, vice president of governmental affairs at security firm Entrust. "They have had three different heads of that division in the past 18 months, which has made it a challenge to have continuity and stability."

While the industry has largely praised the Bush administration's position on cybersecurity, as spelled out in the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, security experts believe the information frontier has not been effectively patrolled.

"The problems of the past have been largely because of the fallout of 9/11 and the focus of the federal government on physical security," said Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance. "Cybersecurity has been put in the backseat."

News of the resignation came as the Bush administration announced its second nomination for the post of secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The nominee, Michael Chertoff, has been a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, a U.S. attorney for New Jersey and an assistant U.S. attorney general. The administration's first pick, Bernard Kerik, bowed out of the nomination in early December after a variety of legal and ethical problems were publicized.

While President Bush praised Chertoff for being a "practical organizer, a skilled manager and a brilliant thinker," the nominee is also a safe bet. Chertoff has passed muster in the Senate three times already, successfully being confirmed for three other government positions.

For cybersecurity, Chertoff's nomination could signal a change in policy at the Department of Homeland Security, Entrust's Burton posited. Three years ago, Burton met with the nominee while Chertoff was at the Department of Justice, handling criminal prosecutions, including cybercrime cases, he said.

"We will see how deeply he personally gets engaged in the focus on cybersecurity," Entrust's Burton said. "But clearly, at the top, we have someone that understands this issue."

Sources knowledgeable about Chertoff's confirmation process believe Congress will quickly give the thumbs-up to the former judge and prosecutor. Liscouski will be leaving by February, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said.

Security experts hope the new guard will bring a new focus on Internet and information security.

"Attacks are occurring everyday in cyberspace," CSIA's Kurtz said. "Are terrorists behind those attacks? No. But we have criminals in cyberspace, and that needs far more attention from the federal government."