Steamed about security

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The sight of Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) grilling federal agency "big boys," a term Putnam uses on occasion, can be great theater. The 29-year-old congressman knows cybersecurity issues and asks tough questions.

Putnam was at his toughest during a recent House subcommittee hearing when he grew impatient with answers from Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and information technology in the Office of Management and Budget.

In response to one of his questions, Evans acknowledged that only five of 24 agencies had completed inventories of information systems assets, as required by law. Putnam questioned her on the effectiveness of OMB's budget guidance.

Putnam: You're saying that your budget guidance language tells agencies what they need to do to get [it] right. But did anything actually happen to them?

Evans: Are you asking if specific action has been taken since the budget guidance was issued to the agencies?

Putnam: I guess I'm asking if there's been anything other than guidance.

He said he wanted to know how much money OMB had withheld from agencies and how many requests for funding of systems modernization and development it had blocked while those agencies completed inventories.

Evans promised to get back to Putnam once she found out if that was information she could release to the subcommittee.

Putnam is not the only lawmaker who has been demanding answers about the nation's cybersecurity readiness. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) sent a letter to Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge March 19, more than a year after the Homeland Security Act became law.

It has also been a year since the Bush administration outlined cybersecurity objectives in a document titled "The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace."

Why is it, Lieberman asked, that all the administration had to show at a National Cyber Security Summit last December "was neither a plan nor a blueprint, but a plan to create a blueprint?" He called the strategy vague and weak.

Under pressure from industry, the administration watered down the plan, Lieberman said, "stripping any hint that the federal government might require or even exert pressure on nonfederal entities to make the parts of the cyberinfrastructure for which they are responsible more secure."

In particular, he said, the document was short on specifics in its recommendations for reducing security vulnerabilities in software. Judging from the length of Lieberman's letter to Ridge — 21 pages containing 57 questions — it was clear the senator was unhappy.

Congressional overseers want answers about what they say they see as a lack of substantial progress toward cybersecurity, both inside the federal government and nationally. After attending hearings and reading numerous reports examining cybersecurity weaknesses, several congressional members have said they want action, not words.

"I think they're getting tired," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a group that offers training for network and systems administrators. Paller said he has thought for some time that members of Congress and federal officials were too lenient toward the software industry in particular. "I felt that they shouldn't be quite as forgiving as they were being," he said.

Critics such as Paller say the federal government has a flawed cybersecurity policy that began more than four years ago and has continued through the Bush administration. That policy, he said, has been to let the software industry solve computer and information security problems.

"It's exactly the same error that was made in the early days of aviation, in the early days of automobiles," he said.

Paller's view is that many of the cybersecurity weaknesses that expose federal and corporate computer networks to attack are the direct result of the software industry's success at manipulating Congress and the White House.

In the past six months, however, congressional and OMB officials have shown signs of impatience with the results of the hands-off policies.

Putnam plans 23 oversight hearings this year, many focused on information security. But his proposed Corporate Information Security Accountability Act is making business officials especially nervous.

Last fall, Putnam drafted a bill requiring publicly traded corporations to file an information security report each year with the Securities and Exchange Commission. For now, that bill is on the back burner, "held in abeyance," said Bob Dix, his chief of staff.

"The last option Mr. Putnam wants to pursue is additional regulation or legislation on the private sector," Dix said. "However, he realizes the sense of urgency attached to improving the overall security profile of corporate America."

Some corporate officials and analysts welcomed Putnam's proposed bill as good public policy. John Pescatore, vice president for Internet security at Gartner Inc., called it a fantastic idea. But many others told Putnam they would oppose any mandate to file information security plans with the SEC.

"Before we lay new legislation on, let's look at what we have and understand that to the best of our ability," said Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, an advocacy group formed in February to influence public policy and spending on cybersecurity.

Alliance members, however, are unopposed to Putnam drafting legislation to amend the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. He has proposed language requiring federal agency officials to include information security considerations when they make decisions about buying information technology.

"There seems to be broad-based support for an amendment that updates the language of Clinger-Cohen to reflect the current climate," Dix said.

Some industry observers think Putnam's corporate accountability bill could be passed if the congressman decides to push it. "There's a big chance it will get through," Pescatore said, "though it will probably take a few more tries."

OMB officials did not respond by press time.

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