Performing a critical duty

Two weeks into his new job, John Tritak faced something that most government employees spend a lifetime avoiding: a congressional committee demanding answers.

Tritak became the new director of the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office in July, just as a national newspaper reported that the CIAO's biggest project, helping to develop a plan to protect the government's critical systems against cyber-attacks, would involve monitoring and tracking private-sector computer use.

Public interest groups issued one protest after another. Security and privacy experts told anyone who would listen that it was a bad idea. And it was Tritak's job to explain to Congress that the newspaper got it all wrong.

Many may have taken one look at the situation and run as far and as fast away as they could from it, but Tritak took it as a challenge.

"It's been exciting," he said.

Not exactly the response most people would have. But this also is a man who awaited the birth of his first child (born Aug. 23) while accepting calls from the White House. And though he appreciates the seriousness of his new role, he still cannot quite internalize that he has landed himself in this position.

"It is sometimes hard to believe, and there's always going to be someone better than you [who] can do the job, but they offered it to me," he said.

Tritak has transitioned smoothly into his new role as one of the most important public officials in the country. As director of the CIAO, he is in charge of a core group of nearly 40 staff members from about 10 federal agencies who have been given the task of ensuring that the government is prepared for the next generation of conflict known as information warfare.

Tritak says he strongly believes there is no way the government can move forward in protecting the nation without help from industry. This is an idea that the CIAO has stood for since its inception, but which will not endear him to the many in government who still oppose it.

Though Tritak gained government experience as a State Department liaison to the command staff of Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia, he says his days as a federal practice attorney at Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand taught him the most about Washington politics. And he laughs at the memory of sitting in front of that congressional committee and watching the three other witnesses—all Hill veterans—turn to him for answers.

Tritak is right back where he started, at least physically. In 1986, he went to work for the Rand Corp.'s Pacific-Sierra Research organization (now part of Veridian), helping develop strategic analyses of the Soviet Union. His office was located in the same building and same floor as the CIAO's current Arlington, Va., offices.

That experience—along with studies at the University of London, Kings College, where he obtained a master's degree in war studies—formed the basis for his work at the CIAO by giving him the ability to look at problems from a different perspective.

"I was at Kings College with Europeans, not Americans," he said. "It taught me the importance of being able to step out a little bit from where I sit."

Tied in with his passion for tracking how technology affects and shapes politics and society, that experience played a key role in his appointment, Tritak said. But there is very little that can prepare someone for a position like this, he said, and he gives a lot of thanks to his staff and his predecessor, Jeffrey Hunker, who is now at the National Security Council.

"He was terrific in trying to prepare me as much as anyone can," Tritak said. "I am very much a student about having to perform a directorship function here."

In the end, no matter how many government-centric views he has to fight or hearings he must survive, Tritak has a simple goal for his tenure at the CIAO.

"When I think about what is going to be said about this 10 years from now, what I hope they say is that we really moved forward constructively, and that we handed to the next administration something they can work with," he said.

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