Is DHS ready to take the lead on cybersecurity?

Destructive attacks, a “cyber 9/11” and companies bankrupted by data breaches: They’re all ugly scenarios that government officials often use to underscore the cyber threat. But is it enough to compel action?

As cybersecurity legislation languishes in Congress, critical infrastructure remains under-secured and disputes over leadership linger, a panel of officials speaking Oct. 1 at the Wilson Center in Washington warned that the problem continues to grow. To counter the threat, there must be a solid public-private partnership that includes a central organization leading the way, the panelists said.

“It is broad, but it is a fundamental problem nonetheless. If you think about it, we’ve had building codes for generations to make sure…that a building meets certain standards,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “Now that we’re in a society and economy in which computers operate virtually everything…it seems to me that we’ve got to have standards that are met. The best way to do that is through a collaborative system that draws upon the expertise of the private sector and the knowledge of government.”

Collaboration between government and the private sector has been a cornerstone in the national cybersecurity discussion, and was also a central part of the failed Cybersecurity Act of 2012. At the Wilson Center event, panelists all called on the Homeland Security Department to play a leading role in federal cybersecurity efforts, but seemed uncertain as to whether the agency is ready to do so just yet.

“We’ve often heard criticisms that DHS isn’t up to the job; well, that is their job. If they can’t pull this together then we have to have a different conversation about why our Homeland Security Department can’t defend the homeland from one of the most critical [threats],” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The reason DHS needs to be in charge of this is they’re the accountability. We’re not capable of having that level of civilian oversight if it were placed in the Pentagon.”

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander at U.S Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, agreed that DHS needs to have a leading role in cybersecurity, and said he is confident in the agency’s abilities.

“Given where the discussion is, that’s the right thing to do. Cyber is so important that we need to make sure we’re doing it right, and the way to do that is through transparency,” Alexander said. “My experience with DHS is that they’re growing and they’re coming on fast. They’re getting there. We can throw rocks at them, but I think our nation needs them to be in the middle of this.”

Alexander said he sees DHS as the “entry point” for partnership with industry, and outlined a dream team of his own for handling national cybersecurity. With DHS leading, the FBI would handle law enforcement and attribution, NSA would be in charge of foreign intelligence, and Cyber Command would be tasked with defending the nation, he said.

“Together that team is what, I think, the American people hold us accountable for doing. We have to have it transparent with oversight,” Alexander said.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

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

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group