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Making Sense of the Obama Overhaul of U.S. Cybersecurity

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, May 29 2009

At 10:55 ET this morning, President Obama is slated to detail his new vision for how the U.S. federal government will tackle the challenge of cybersecurity in the days ahead. The East Room event will be broadcast live at whitehouse.gov/live. Now, there's much internal bureaucratic wrangling surrounding today's announcement. But the president will likely leave much on that front unsaid, if he touches on it at all. So here's your boiled-down yet acronym-heavy backgrounder on what we'll be hearing from Obama today.

Ars Technica's Jon Stokes reported last year that since 9/11 bureaucratic woes means its been difficult to keep anyone in the U.S. cybersecurity czar post for very long. The trouble? Lack of access, lack of authority, lack of a clear mission. For example, Wired.com's Noah Shachtman reported that the last "czar," Rod Beckstrom, left out of frustration over his restricted funding and limited power. A big part of the problem is where the czar's desk sits in the grander scheme of Washington. Under the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) instituted by President George W. Bush, the czar served as the head of the National Cybersecurity Center (NCSC) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Criticized by many as too cloak and dagger for its own good and unwilling to bring together government and industry, the NCSC has found itself hopelessly stuck in the bureaucratic chain of command.

With that confusion in mind, just after taking office Obama called for a comprehensive review of the CNCI. Whereas candidate Obama, the Congressional Research Service has noted, called for a "National Cyber Advisor" who reported directly to the president, as of last week the word on the street was that the discussion over where the future czar would slot into the federal government was still unsettled. But things seem to have since shaken out. The AP's Lolita Baldor is reporting that under the Obama reorganization, the cybersecurity czar will be a special assistant to the president, embedded in the hierarchy of the National Security Council but reporting to both National Security Advisor Jim Jones and National Economic Council director Larry Summers. That means several steps closer to the West Wing, but with less direct access to the president than some cybersecurity advocates had hoped.

The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima reports that Obama will announce his plan today, but will not yet name someone to the cybersecurity czar post. NextGov's Allan Holmes wonders if the high-profile treatment being given the plan's release is a sign that "cybersecurity, long held at arms length from White House policy thinkers, now has the president's ear."

That's the skinny. Stay tuned for where things go from here.

(Department of Homeland Security photo of former cybersecurity czar Rod Beckstrom.)