Pressure grows to reinstall White House cyber czar
Pressure to reinstate a cyber czar within the White House is growing, with bipartisan allies lining up on Capitol Hill to push such a proposal while the incoming administration zeroes in on addressing cybersecurity challenges.
Outside experts and allies say they are optimistic President-elect Joe Biden will establish a cybersecurity coordinator position in the White House, after the Trump administration cut such a position in 2018.
Then-national security adviser John Bolton said the move was intended to reduce bureaucracy, but members of both parties criticized the decision, saying it took away a key mechanism for coordinating cyber policy.
With a new administration set to take over in January, lawmakers are ramping up their efforts to establish a national cyber director position to provide a central coordinating force for federal cybersecurity initiatives.
“I think the coordination needs to be improved, and the way to do that is to have somebody at the center whose job it is to provide that coordination and direction,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), one of the key lawmakers leading the charge in Congress to establish the position, told reporters on a call last week.
King, who caucuses with Senate Democrats, co-chairs the Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC), a group created by Congress and made up of lawmakers, federal officials and members of industry who were tasked with laying out recommendations for defending the U.S. in cyberspace.
Earlier this year the group submitted a recommendation to establish a national cyber director at the White House, which would have greater authority than the eliminated position and would be Senate-confirmed. King and other lawmakers in the CSC have fought hard to get such a position included in the annual defense policy bill being negotiated in Congress.
The House-passed version of the 2021 defense funding bill included a provision to establish such a position, but the version approved by the Senate earlier this year did not. The Senate version only included a requirement to conduct an “independent assessment” of the “feasibility” of establishing the role.
King told reporters that he hoped lawmakers would be able “resolve the differences” around creating the position as the House and Senate work to conference their versions of the legislation over the next few weeks.
“We’re not there yet, but there is a version in both bills, there has been a lot of discussion over the last few weeks, and we are hopeful we will be able to come up with a final provision that will be strong and hopefully create this position,” King said.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a member of the CSC, said he is “optimistic” about the final version of the defense policy bill including the cyber director clause, telling The Hill last week, “We need Congress here to create the position, and ultimately we need the new administration to embrace the position and appoint someone.”
Langevin introduced legislation along with several other bipartisan House members earlier in the year to create the national cyber director role, and was one of the first lawmakers to push back strongly after the role was eliminated in 2018. He praised both King and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s cybersecurity subcommittee, for their work on the issue.
Experts say an incoming Biden administration could boost the chances of a national cyber director being appointed.
Michael Daniel, who served as a special assistant to President Obama and cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council for five years, told The Hill that he thought it was “very likely” that the incoming administration would establish a cybersecurity coordinator position regardless of whether it is included in the defense bill.
“One of the first issues they are going to have to tackle is rebuilding the coordination mechanisms within the U.S. government,” said Daniel, who is president and CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance. “Something that atrophied … is cross-agency coordination, so that element is going to have to be rebuilt and expanded.”
A spokesperson for the Biden campaign told The Hill this week that the incoming administration plans to focus on issues including restoring the nation’s leadership role in cyberspace, reinvesting in securing critical infrastructure, imposing costs on nations attacking the United States in cyberspace and securing election systems.
Theresa Payton, who served as White House chief information officer during the George W. Bush administration, agreed on the need for a central coordination figure on cybersecurity serving in the White House, regardless of the party in power.
“Now more than ever we have multiple agencies who each have a fractional part of the cybersecurity implementation, and we really do need a cyber director who can provide leadership, look across the different departments and organizations and provide alignment,” Payton, the CEO of the cyber consultancy group Fortalice Solutions, told The Hill on Tuesday.
“Not having a person in that role creates a huge leadership vacuum, and a huge opportunity for execution misses,” she said.
Payton noted that the position being a president-appointed, Senate-confirmed role could be a major strength.
“If it’s a political appointee without Senate confirmation, then you will have less independence, and having independence could be a good check and balance,” Payton said.
With the position’s creation still uncertain as Congress tries to meet a December deadline to wrap up work on the 2021 defense bill and get it signed into law by President Trump, King emphasized that the role of a national cyber director was critical no matter who is in office.
“This is such an important function, this shouldn’t be something that ebbs and flows according to who’s in the office,” King told reporters.
“If you have a messy structure, which is what we have now … then you are not going to have a coherent, coordinated policy, and that’s why we need someone at the top with that function,” he added.
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