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Kimberly Krautter Headshot

Obama Faces First National Security Failure as Sotomayor and Health Care Hang in the Balance

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Live by the press release, die by the press release. This is one of the many rubrics of public relations that I share with my clients. If you put it out there, it will likely come back to bite you in the nether regions, unless of course you have the actual solution in hand before you issue the release, and it's all a matter of clever implementation.

After his latest good will tour during which he once again donned the red cape of wisdom, liberty, and brotherhood, President Obama returned home to face his first serious national security failure. And this one is all on him. No equivocating. No looking back to say, "Nah uh, he broke it first." It's such a shame, too, because he should be returning with ticker tape headlines proclaiming him as a champion of the hearts and minds of our frenemies (now an official word from Merriam-Webster).

Last week's sustained cyber-attacks on some of our country's most sensitive government networks exposed how a country that lives by the technology can also perish by the technology. Someone (they suspect loony North Korea but remain unsure), used malware to flood more than a dozen websites including the FAA, the State Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Treasury. According to an analysis reported in PC World magazine, the White House and Homeland Security were able to thwart the same attack when others couldn't because, "Too many federal agency security people did not know which network service provider connected their Web sites to the Internet."

This is precisely the kind of boneheaded cross-team communication and coordination failure that a cyber-security czar woulda-coulda-shoulda prevented. But we don't have one. President Obama personally addressed the White House press corps on May 29 to issue a statement on "Securing Our Nation's Cyber Infrastructure," saying emphatically that this is "key to America's economic competitiveness...a matter of public safety and national security...a key to America's military dominance." If indeed it is (and few would disagree), then it would seem logical that on the heel of that briefing the President would have announced action on this.

During his briefing, the President even acknowledged that being techno-savvy is part of his administration's unique brand and cited incidences in which privacy hacking had occurred against himself, people close to him and his campaign. When my parents' personal data was stolen, it was no less frightening to them than if someone had entered their home and held them up at gunpoint. Others with whom I've spoken who have experienced this felt the same way. I have no doubt that the President felt thusly, which makes it all the more perplexing that there has been no follow-through. Just this morning, he announced the selection of a U.S. Surgeon General, and yet still no cyber-security czar.

It is cold-comfort to learn that the manner of the attack was low level and unsophisticated using, "software packages you can buy off the shelf that will do this type of work," according to cyber-security expert Aaron Phillip of Navigant Consulting on NPR. Sitting in the city with the world's busiest airport, knowledge that the FAA was among those attacked sends chills down the spine. By the way, was also rendered with service interruptions. Nine years ago, I reported on the notorious Emulex hoax in which something as simple as a phony press release caused the company to lose more than 60% of its value in less than 16 minutes with ripple effects across the market. Considering how skittish today's markets are, the mind reels how a hacker can cause chaos. Fortunately, no mission-critical systems were affected.

This abject failure is noteworthy on its own, but it has far more consequences. It is a self-inflicted wound just as the President has two of his own mission-critical issues before Congress: the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Healthcare Reform. Missteps like this serve only to entrench the hyper-partisans in both chambers. His political enemies, smelling blood in the water, will become even more strident. We have evidence of this with the tenor of the opening remarks offered by Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in the Sotomayor hearing this morning. In response, the Democrat Congressional leadership will become even more heavy handed in their use of a new "supermajority." The sensible centrists who already feel ill at ease about the President's ability to match rhetoric with action will read the cyber security failure as a bad omen.

Judge Sotomayor will have to endure a harsher and more inflammatory hearing on the order of Justice Thomas and other GOP nominees (paybacks are hell). The vote to confirm her will be closer than it rightly should be. The vote for Health Care Reform -- which Republican centrists truly support -- will now surely not happen before the August break. When or if such legislation does reach the President's desk it will be likely resemble more of the status quo than it does reform by any definition.

As his immediate predecessor learned, positive earned media is ephemeral and should not be wasted on a big case of the dumbs.