Rep. Thompson presses DHS for information on cyber initiative

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is frustrated by the lack of response from the Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director for National Intelligence about a reportedly new cybersecurity program the National Security Agency is developing.

Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, asked DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff for more information on a cyber initiative that the Baltimore Sun first reported in September.

“On at least four separate occasions, my staff has tried to schedule briefings from the department on this effort,” Thompson said in a letter to Chertoff. “Each time, the department refused to do so.”

Greg Garcia, DHS’ assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications, also refused to talk about the initiative at an Oct. 17 hearing on securing the electrical grid, Thompson added.

“This week, I learned that the so-called ‘Cyber-Initiative’ may be unveiled by the president as early as Nov. 1,” he said. “I certainly hope that the department does not plan to go forward with this program without fully briefing the committee as well as the House Appropriations Committee.”

The Sun’s article states that DHS and NSA are developing a plan to monitor critical infrastructure networks to prevent unauthorized intrusions, and the effort includes more than 2,000 people from both agencies.

Laura Keehner, a DHS spokeswoman, said the department has met with the committee more than six times in the past year on cybersecurity and related issues and is unclear why Thompson is saying they have refused to meet.

“We have continually kept members of Congress involved and will continue to do so,” she said. “We will respond to his letter in a timely fashion.”

Keehner added that DHS and the government will continue to increase federal efforts to improve cybersecurity.

“We will continue to strengthen our critical infrastructure and how systems are interconnected,” she said. “We will continue to look at vulnerabilities and try to fix them.”

She could not comment on whether the NSA program existed or not, nor if there would be any forthcoming announcement.

An e-mail request that asked for a statement from NSA was not immediately answered.

Thompson is not happy with DHS' response to his inquiries. He is concerned that the cyber initiative brings up constitutional and privacy issues, such as whether private and public networks would be covered and to what extent the intelligence community would be involved in monitoring privately-owned critical infrastructure.

Thompson also said he and others have long asked for the Bush administration to pay more attention to cyberthreats, and through the cyber initiative “the centralization of power raises significant questions that must be answered before any major overhaul is initiated.”

During the hearing, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) said cyberthreats against public and private networks are increasing, and the administration has yet to recognize and prioritize these potential risks.

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