Cybersecurity

Northern Command nominee: U.S. behind in cyber defense

Admiral William E. Gortney

Adm. William Gortney was nominated in June to lead the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

A Navy admiral nominated to head the joint command responsible for defending the U.S. homeland and aerospace acknowledged in his confirmation hearing that the country is lagging in its cyber-defense of critical infrastructure.

Adm. William Gortney, who was tapped last month by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 10 that he was unaware of a formal coordinating mechanism between Northern Command and the Department of Homeland Security for responding to cyberattacks.

Northern Command does have a liaison officer in DHS’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, the department’s 24/7 hub for monitoring and responding to cyber threats, a DHS official told FCW.

Northern Command would coordinate the military's response to any physical damage to infrastructure caused by cyberattacks, while DHS is the lead civilian agency in that response. The U.S. military set up Northern Command about a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a cross-military-branch effort to protect the country.

Cybersecurity is not a primary area of focus of Northern Command, Adm. James Winnefeld, then head of the command, said in October 2010. U.S. Cyber Command takes the lead in the nation's cyber-defense, but Northern Command would coordinate with Cyber Command in the event of an attack, he said.

"If there were an attack that took down the electrical grid for a significant amount of time, it's going to be CYBERCOM who partners with DHS to help with the recovery from that attack,” the Northern Command website quoted Winnefeld as saying. "My play in that is going to be how do we keep the trains running? How do we keep people fed? And we're exploring the linkage between those two things."

Nearly four years later, civilian and military agencies are still connecting the dots on how they would respond to an attack with cyber and physical dimensions.

"Who is responsible for the active defense of these facilities? Or is anybody responsible?" Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Gortney at his confirmation hearing last week, referring to infrastructure such as transit systems and financial institutions.

"For our civilian infrastructure, to be honest, sir,  Homeland Security has that responsibility," the admiral replied. "And it is my professional opinion that we … as a nation are behind in our ability to defend that critical infrastructure."

"Do you have a coordination with Homeland Security? Again, if [they] are the ones responsible, there should be at least a joint planning effort, not just in response but in deterrence or prevention," Reed said.

While DHS is Northern Command's "closest inter-agency partner" in homeland defense, "I do not know if we have a formal coordinating, and if confirmed, I will make sure I understand that, sir," Gortney said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to vote on Gortney’s nomination.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Follow him on Twitter: @snlyngaas

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above