Tuesday Profile: Tech’s translator

Cybersecurity experts routinely argue that Washington does not grasp the magnitude of the threats building against U.S. networks. But that complaint isn’t lodged against Sameer Bhalotra, the White House’s deputy cybersecurity coordinator.

Bhalotra is widely considered one of the masterminds — along with White House Cyber Coordinator Howard Schmidt — of the administration blueprint for cybersecurity legislation that was released earlier this month.

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Alan Paller, research director for the SANS Institute, said Bhalotra’s knowledge of security policy is unquestioned. 

“He’s the smartest guy I’ve met on the Hill,” Paller said. “We’ve never seen someone at the White House with his level of ability to hear what the Senate and House people are saying and at the same time he hears” and understands the technology.

His résumé includes undergraduate degrees in engineering and physics from Harvard. After graduating in 1998, he spent a year at a now-defunct consulting firm in Boston before earning a doctorate in physics from Stanford, where his research was funded by the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

“I wasn’t one of those kids that dreamed of being a physicist. I never had too much long-term planning,” Bhalotra said, adding that he was the kind of child who took apart his computer to see how it worked.

Bhalotra, a native of New England, eventually moved back East to accept a position with the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was detailed to the director’s staff. From there he moved to the Director of National Intelligence’s office, where he was again privy to Cabinet-level policy discussions.

Bhalotra’s knack for translating dense policy concepts has won him many admirers, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and former Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who brought him onboard the Senate Intelligence Committee’s staff in a unique bipartisan role that included cybersecurity issues.

Bhalotra said his work on cybersecurity “exploded” after he took the Senate job in 2007. He quickly gained a reputation as a leader among Hill staffers.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), ranking Democrat on the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, said Bhalotra was a “powerful policy force” on the Senate panel. 

“His strong work ethic, political savvy, and deep integrity earned my respect and appreciation,” Langevin said in a statement. “I was especially pleased to hear that he was grabbed up by the White House because I knew that he would be able to push for results, and indeed he has.”

“He’s kind of the consummate professional,” said Jim Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He really gets every detail, does a lot of thorough work; it’s amazing,” 

White House cybersecurity coordinator Schmidt said Bhalotra’s reputation preceded him.

“As I came back into D.C. from the private sector, everyone said they met with Sameer and how refreshing it was to have someone who understands and can articulate the technology but also understand the policy and business implications of a lot of these things,” Schmidt told The Hill.

When it came time for Schmidt to find a right-hand man last year, he knew exactly where to turn. 

“He was a superior fit for us,” Schmidt said. 

Soon after Bhalotra’s appointment, the White House received a request from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to weigh in on the glut of cybersecurity bills pending before Congress. Schmidt’s office signaled they were willing to hash out a comprehensive bill instead of continuing with a piecemeal approach to regulating network security.

“It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Bhalotra said. “There was a huge amount of momentum on the Hill, 50-plus bills and the opportunity to work with leadership across the committees on a single outcome. We accepted the offer in July and have been working max speed since then.”

The end result was the legislative recommendations issued by the White House on May 12, making the Obama administration the first to release extensive guidance on cybersecurity. 

Reaching that point took what several participants described as a massive coordinated effort with the numerous agencies involved in cybersecurity, including the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce and the Pentagon. 

Several participants in those discussions said Bhalotra’s leadership was crucial to the speedy delivery of the guidance, which will likely form the basis of legislation that could pass Congress. 

Ari Schwartz, senior Internet policy adviser at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said Bhalotra helped keep a balance between maximizing the policy’s effectiveness and minimizing the burden on industry.

“It’s really, really important to have translators, people who speak geek and speak policy,” said DHS deputy undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate Philip Reitinger about Bhalotra. “Because ideally, policies are not technology-specific, but they have to be informed by technology. People who sit at that crossroads can move information across those domains.”

Lewis called the policy a starting point for a comprehensive bill that’s “really quite strong” but acknowledged it will likely undergo significant changes as it moves through the committees with jurisdiction over cybersecurity. He said the White House’s plan would ensure that infrastructure and utility companies aren’t simply left to their own devices when it comes to safeguarding their system. 

Bhalotra said his time on the Hill equipped him to manage multiple stakeholders while crafting a final product that would satisfy agencies with different missions. He pointed out the rising importance of cybersecurity issues and called it a “fast-paced, exciting” area of policy. 

When asked about the government’s widely reported shortage of technical talent, Sameer said he feels privileged to serve in the executive branch.

“There are not as many people as we’d like, we need more excellent people, but the people who are doing it now, they’re tops,” Bhalotra said. “They’re working on some of the most difficult problems.”

He said the additional hiring authority outlined for DHS in the White House plan would help bring more personnel with the skills needed to safeguard the country’s networks.

Schmidt said Bhalotra is a shining example of the impact an individual can have on the policy process.

“He’s a good recruitment tool,” Schmidt said. “Not just his knowledge and education, but he’s just a good role model to get other people recruiting.”