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Manfra announces plans to step down from CISA

Jeanette Manfra testifies at a House committee hearing in Nov. 2018

"Jeanette Manfra testifies at a House committee hearing in Nov. 2018

Jeanette Manfra, the longstanding and well-respected leader who helped stand up the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, is leaving at the end of the year.

"After 12 years at DHS, I'll be leaving CISA at the end of this year. This is not an easy decision, as it's been one of my greatest honors to work alongside such a remarkable team on this incredibly important mission," Manfra wrote on Twitter. "Together, not only did we establish CISA, the nation's first civilian cybersecurity agency, but we have also made great strides towards protecting our country from cyber threats."

Manfra is one of the most senior and tenured leaders at CISA and its predecessor agency, the National Protection and Programs Directorate. Prior to her post as assistant secretary/director at CISA and NPPD, she also served stints as senior counselor to the secretary of Homeland Security on cybersecurity matters and director of critical infrastructure cybersecurity on the National Security Council.

"She will be missed," said Ari Schwartz, who has worked with Manfra as senior director for cybersecurity at the NSC under President Barack Obama and in other capacities. "CISA has been doing a good job of bringing on some new leaders, but it will be hard for them to match the level of talent that Jeanette brings to that job."

She is credited by current and former DHS officials with championing the need for a consolidated cybersecurity agency, laying the groundwork for legislation that eventually stood up CISA and taking the lead on executing agency priorities like Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation and Einstein. She also helped shape and evolve the structure for one of CISA's most important tools, Binding Operational Directives, which implement mandatory cybersecurity improvements across the civilian federal government.

House Homeland Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and cybersecurity subcommittee chair Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said in a joint statement that Manfra was "a steady hand" during a pivotal time  her agency transitioned from NPPD to CISA and will be missed.

"In early 2017, Ms. Manfra took on the enormous challenge of assessing how DHS could best partner with State and local election officials to improve the delivery of cybersecurity services to protect election infrastructure," they said. "She has played an important role in advancing the cybersecurity posture of Federal networks and has helped build stronger, more productive relationships with owners and operators of critical infrastructure to ensure that the Federal government and private sector work together closely to make the cyber ecosystem more secure."

Chris Cummiskey, former deputy undersecretary for management at DHS, said Manfra not only brought critical institutional memory around those programs, but also would have been at the forefront of the evolution of governmentwide cybersecurity efforts following the elimination of the White House cyber coordination position last year.

"Those programs are going to need to evolve over time, and what is next on the horizon for those kind of programs is going to be a significant issue for DHS and how that's received by the interagency," said Cummiskey. "With the White House stepping away from that coordination role, her position really is central to herding the cats when it comes to cyber policy or the federal government."

Manfra's resignation represents a loss to DHS right on the cusp on the 2020 presidential election primaries. While election security and what to do about it has become a hot-button political issue between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, Manfra and others at CISA have often pushed the message that it is an apolitical national security issue affecting the entire nation. In congressional hearings, other DHS and U.S. officials often stumbled or equivocated when asked if they backed up assessments by the intelligence community that Russia waged a covert operation to influence the 2016 election. Manfra always answered in the affirmative and stressed the likelihood that Moscow and other foreign capitals were preparing to wage similar campaigns in the future.

That message has often been complicated by politics stemming from the fallout of the 2016 presidential election as well as two high-profile investigations centered around whether President Donald Trump coordinated with or invited foreign countries to interfere in U.S. politics on his behalf. Additionally, the department is undergoing a crisis in leadership vacancies, with five secretaries in the last three years and acting officials currently filling the roles of secretary (Chad Wolf), chief of staff (Chad Mizelle), general counsel (Joseph Maher), undersecretary for management (Tex Alles) and chief financial officer (Stacy Marcott).

Cummiskey said that he was encouraged by the extent to which CISA has been able to apolitically carry out its election security duties in that environment thus far, but acknowledged that the agency can't do it alone.

"DHS can't operate as an island. Eventually on certain policy issues they're going to need support from the White House and Congress," he said. "In the absence of that, I think they know there are things that need to happen, but there's a lot that needs to happen, so I'm not sure we can just point to CISA as the only place where you would really need to see positive change to make an impact. They're saying the right things, they seem to be pursuing the right aspects of what you want to do in terms of election security in the next round, but it's a very broad pond to cover with limited resources."

CyberScoop first reported on Manfra's impending departure.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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