FBI's cyberdefense unit gets new leader

The FBI yesterday appointed one of its veteran investigators to head the bureau's cyberdefense unit, as security experts and lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to debate how best to organize federal efforts to protect the nation's critical infrastructure from a devastating cyberattack.

FBI Director Louis Freeh announced the appointment of Ronald Dick as the new head of the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC). Dick, a 24-year veteran of the FBI with a background in investigating computer crimes, replaces Michael Vatis, who recently left the NIPC to become director of the Institute for Security Technology Studies (ISTS) at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Dick inherits the helm of the NIPC at a turning point for the three-year-old organization. The NIPC has been criticized for what some have called a "fundamental inability to communicate" with the rest of the national security community. That problem, coupled with the sheer number of organizations involved in national cybersecurity, has led some experts and members of Congress to call for a drastic overhaul and consolidation of federal cyberdefenses.

Dick's "solid credentials as an FBI agent should be an asset in the inevitable bureaucratic tugs of war ahead," said Steven Aftergood, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "A new director can certainly help, as long as he has the backing of the FBI and the [Bush] administration."

In one of his first steps toward demonstrating a coordinated federal approach to cybersecurity, Dick publicly introduced the Cyber Incident Coordination Group (CICG), a group of select cyberintelligence experts from the CIA, the National Security Council, the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office and the FBI. The CICG was formed late last year and conducts virtual meetings to coordinate responses to cyberincidents that may pose a risk to national security.

Despite these advances in cooperation, the Bush administration has already hinted at a preference for a more centralized management structure for national and cyberdefense issues.

The president on Feb. 13 issued a memorandum abolishing the existing structure of federal interagency working groups, including the Critical Infrastructure Coordination Group, and reconstituted each as one of 11 centralized policy coordination groups within the National Security Council. One of those groups will handle issues of homeland defense, which specifically involve defending the nation against cyberattacks or acts of terrorism.

Likewise, at a hearing today before the House Armed Services Committee, members of the U.S. Commission on National Security laid out their strategy for revamping the nation's security structure, including homeland defense. The commission recently recommended that Congress consolidate all federal cyberdefense agencies, including the NIPC, into a Homeland Defense Agency.

But the commission members, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Gary Hart, face a significant challenge in getting Congress to moove on their proposed plans, according to a commission member.

"Managing change is the greatest challenge that we face," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The NIPC is not exactly what people thought it should be and the [Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office] is a compromise." The official added that the NIPC doesn't belong in the FBI, but in an agency where the national security community can better tap into its expertise.

"There's a strong sense of cynicism and commission-fatigue out there," the official said. "The Senate, for example, can't handle significant change in the absence of a major disaster. Incremental steps are all you can hope for. We're still years away from differentiating a cybercrime from a national security emergency and thinking about vulnerabilities in that sense."

Officials from private sector companies, which own the majority of the nation's telecommunications, banking, transportation and energy infrastructures that are vulnerable to major cyber-induced disruptions, have said privately that a more streamlined federal effort would enhance cooperation between the government and industry. However, doing away with the NIPC is not the answer, they say.

In a recent interview, Tim Atkin, director of critical infrastructure protection at SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va., said it is important for all organizations involved to understand that critical infrastructure protection is not solely a law enforcement issue or a defense issue.

"I think it is a recipe for success to centralize the coordination for cyberdefense efforts," said Atkin, who is also a member of the National Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security. And while the jury is still out as to what the best organization is to oversee these efforts, "whatever organizational structure is put in place must treat the issue as both an economic security and a national security concern," said Atkin. "Success in cyberdefense will be achieved only through a business-government partnership."

This story, "FBI's cyberdefense unit gets new leader" was originally published by Computerworld.

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