Senior Biden cyber nominees sail through Senate hearing

The nominees selected by President Biden to fill the top two cybersecurity positions in the federal government faced little opposition during their Senate nomination hearing on Thursday amid growing bipartisan concerns about increasing cyber threats. 

Former National Security Agency (NSA) Deputy Director Chris Inglis, nominated by Biden to fill the new position of national cyber director at the White House, and Jen Easterly, nominated to lead the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), stressed to senators Thursday the need to confront mounting cyberattacks. 

“It will not stop of its own accord, it is not a fire raging across the prairie that once it’s consumed the fuel it will simply stop and we can simply wait for that moment, we must stand in,” Inglis testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on cyber threats. “It will never go away completely, but we can bring it down, we can bring it to heel significantly.”

Easterly, who previously served as the deputy for counterterrorism at the NSA, stressed the need to “anticipate the unimaginable” when combating threats in cyberspace. 

“Even as we contend with the billions of daily intrusions against our networks by malicious actors, I believe that as a nation, we remain at great risk of a catastrophic cyberattack,” Easterly testified. 

The joint nomination hearing for both Inglis and Easterly was held amid a multitude of major cyberattacks in recent weeks and months that have hit critical U.S. organizations.

The SolarWinds hack, discovered in December, allowed Russian hackers to compromise nine federal agencies and at least 100 private sector groups to carry out espionage, while vulnerabilities found by Microsoft in March its Exchange Server email application allowed potentially thousands more groups to be compromised.

Hackers have increasingly used ransomware attacks in attempts to exploit critical groups, including the attack last month on Colonial Pipeline, which provides 45 percent of the East Coast’s fuel and was forced to shut down the entire pipeline for a week due to a ransomware attack. 

The company paid the hackers, who the FBI assessed were based in Russia, the equivalent of $4.4 million in Bitcoin, the majority of which was recovered by the Justice Department earlier this week. 

JBS USA, the nation’s largest beef producer, was hit by a similar ransomware attack last week, and announced Wednesday that it had paid the hackers the equivalent of $11 million to decrypt its systems. 

In light of the attacks, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have taken an increasingly hard look at strengthening the nation’s cybersecurity, and have stressed the need to fill both the national cyber director and CISA director positions. 

Inglis’s potential position was established by the most recent National Defense Authorization Act after a similar role was eliminated under the Trump administration. CISA meanwhile has been without Senate-confirmed leadership since former CISA Director Christopher Krebs was fired by President Trump in November for attempts to push back against election disinformation and misinformation.

When questioned about how she would address these issues if confirmed, Easterly testified that she planned to take a “very hard look” at CISA’s work in the disinformation and misinformation space, but that she wanted to ensure the agency remained “nonpartisan.”

While both Inglis and Easterly faced tough technical questions about their plans for the roles, no members of the committee on Thursday expressed opposition to the nominations.

Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) testified that they were both “highly qualified nominees, who each bring a wealth of private sector and government experience,” expressing support for the nominations. Committee ranking member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also did not indicate he would block the nominations. 

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who introduced Inglis to the committee on Thursday, told reporters ahead of the hearing that he expected the Senate to easily confirm both in their positions. 

“I haven’t heard of any opposition, we will find out at the hearing, but my sense is that these are very nonpartisan nominations,” King told reporters. “Ideally I’d like to see this done in the month of June so that both of these people can be in these important jobs as soon as possible before July…I know that they want to move this as fast as possible.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will move fast on the nominations, with committee votes scheduled on both Inglis and Easterly’s nominations next week. 

Tags Angus King Biden nominees Chris Inglis CISA Colonial Pipeline Company cybersecurity Donald Trump Gary Peters JBS USA Joe Biden Ransomware Rob Portman SolarWinds

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