The buck stops at the top

When Fred Thompson teaches senior agency executives about their role under the Federal Information Security Management Act, many of them acknowledge that the responsibility worries them. They don't feel confident making decisions on matters as technical as whether their agency's electronic information systems are secure.

Thompson, a former Treasury Department executive who is now director of Unisys Corp.'s Federal Government Group and an adjunct faculty member at American University, said FISMA has pushed responsibility for security to where it should be: the highest levels of federal agencies. Nevertheless, he said, many senior executives are unsure how to handle that.

On the surface, the role of senior federal executives under FISMA appears easy, he said.

Following guidelines that the National Institute of Standards and Technology provides, senior officials have several options. They can give their approval for a particular system, they can grant interim status while technicians close the security holes, or they can refuse to let a system be used until it is redesigned, rebuilt and retested.

Each decision must be based on what the senior executive thinks is an acceptable level of risk for the agency. The best way to make those decisions, Thompson said, is to seek as many independent technical assessments as possible.

Thompson, who manages Unisys' information technology support contract for the Executive Office of the President, said senior agency officials should also invite their agencies' inspectors general to drop in on a regular basis to help with technical reviews of system security.

Others, including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the legislative architect of FISMA, concede that federal executives are having difficulty with the new law that gives them a pivotal role in certifying and accrediting computer information systems.

"We give them reams of paper to fill out, and they really aren't sure that what they are certifying to is appropriate," Davis said.

Thompson, who spoke in Washington, D.C., May 3 at an industry event sponsored by Potomac Forum Ltd. and ICG Government, said the senior decision-makers who play an important role in certifying federal information systems security need unbiased information.

"They need to know they have the facts to make the right decision," he said.

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