Cybersecurity called key to homeland defense

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As the Office of Homeland Security takes shape, federal and private-sector technology experts are urging the Bush administration to ensure that cybersecurity is included.

President Bush created the office last month in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and named Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as its head. The Cabinet-level office will coordinate, not replace, the many federal, state and local agencies involved in protecting the nation against terrorist attacks, officials said.

"The key here, when it comes to homeland defense, is to have one very effective person at the pinnacle of it who can help co.ordinate it," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said last month.

The administration is still determining the office's exact structure, including staffing and funding, Fleischer said. Several bills are moving through Congress to better define the office.

But while much of the reaction to the terrorist attacks has focused on physical security, such as airport and building security, information technology and cybersecurity also must be included, experts said.

"It is likely that a separate strategy will be needed to ensure that critical computer systems are also protected," Joel Willemssen, managing director of IT issues at the General Accounting Office, testified at a hearing last month. "However, it will be essential to link the government's strategy for combating computer-based attacks to the national strategy for combating terrorism."

White House officials have been reviewing the national plan for protecting the country's critical infrastructures, including the telecommunications sector, since January. Now, officials are discussing how that strategy will relate to the Office of Homeland Security, Willemssen said.

The government's lead agency for responding to cyberattacks, the National Infrastructure Protection Center, is helping the investigation. The NIPC also offers vital support to the new office because it coordinates protection and response across different entities, NIPC Director Ronald Dick said.

The coordination between physical and cyber protection is essential as agencies consider what could have happened if the "Nimda" worm, which spread rapidly to affect the Internet, had hit Sept. 11 instead of a week later, experts said.

Intelligence and information sharing among agencies, as well as quick dissemination of information via the Internet, will be crucial to the office's success, said Mark DeMier, deputy director for operations at the Anser Institute for Homeland Security.

"It's going to be essential [because] after the attacks, the Internet was the most reliable way to communicate," he said.

Both high- and low-grade technology will play important roles in helping the new security office do its job, DeMier noted. Everything from facial recognition to air-purification masks should be used, he said.

The Homeland Security Office's effectiveness will depend on Congress' willingness to give agencies adequate resources for any new responsibilities to support the office, said Michael Vatis, director of the Dartmouth College Institute of Security Technology Studies and former NIPC director. One reason why critical information systems lack adequate security is that many agencies are required to secure the systems without being given the funds to do so, he said.

Dan Caterinicchia contributed to this article.

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