DHS puts cybersecurity toward top of 2008 to-do list

Cybersecurity is one of the Homeland Security Department’s four primary areas of focus for 2008, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said Dec. 12. In his year-end remarks, Chertoff also said 2007 was “a year of tremendous progress and maturation” for the department.

Cybersecurity, immigration and border security, secure identification, and continuing to “institutionalize the department's functions” are the four areas that the department’s agenda will focus on in 2008, said Chertoff, who will mark his third year as secretary of DHS in February 2008.

DHS is working with Congress to develop a cybersecurity strategy that Chertoff said “will set the template for the next decade on how we deal with this emerging and increasing threat.”

“This is an area, of course, of virtual reality, and as we enter the 21st century, we're acutely aware of the fact that much of our economic well-being as a country depends on our ability to use the Internet and to use data systems in order to perform our work,” Chertoff said.

Although DHS has increased its involvement in state and local fusion centers and public safety interoperable communication grants, improved information sharing with state and local authorities was not one of the four areas Chertoff singled out for 2008.

Lawmakers have been furious about news reports that the Office of Management and Budget plans to slash DHS counterterrorism grants for state and local homeland security funding by more than 60 percent and to eliminate many of the grants programs authorized by Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 for fiscal 2009.

According to Bush administration budget documents obtained and reported on by the Associated Press late last month, the White House planned to ask for $1.4 billion for state and city counterterrorism programs, less than half of the $3.2 billion that the DHS wanted for fiscal 2009.

“If true, the planned abolition of these programs and the proposed evisceration of overall grant funding would mark a dangerous reversal in the administration's support for homeland security programs and our nation’s first responders, and a wholly unjustified departure from a law only recently passed by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Congress,” the chairmen and ranking members of the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said in a letter they sent to President Bush Dec. 12.

OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan said no final decisions had been made about the president’s 2009 budget request and that “we are confident that state and local municipalities will continue to receive federal funding support necessary for helping accomplish their needs for protecting the homeland.”

However, lawmakers took a more positive stance about Chertoff’s year-end assessment, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate committee and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House committee, praised DHS for its progress.

Looking back at 2007, Chertoff also commended advancement that DHS made with biometrics for 10-fingerprint scans at airports and in maritime security. He also touted an agreement the United States made with European countries that will allow the countries to share airline passenger data, such as contact information and credit card numbers, which he said has large counterterrorism significance.

He also said DHS has made strides in improving documentation and identification cards including beginning to implement the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, enhanced driver’s licenses program and the Real ID Act of 2005.

DHS will release Real ID regulations within weeks, Chertoff said. The department submitted to OMB last month a revised set of minimum federal standards that states must eet when issuing driver’s licenses and ID cards to comply with the act.

Chertoff also said he was happy with the progress DHS was making in cargo security, and said he hopes the department will be able to scan almost 100 percent of inbound sea cargo at the northern and southern U.S. borders next year.

He also credited fences for progress in stemming illegal border crossings. But by not passing comprehensive immigration reform this year, “we missed a critical opportunity…to implement a comprehensive solution to a decades-old problem that we know cannot simply be solved by enforcement,” Chertoff said.

Entering the final year of his tenure at DHS, Chertoff promised to give his successor a “department that has fulfilled the promise and is a mature agency -- with more work to do, but a firm foundation on which to build.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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