In the next few days President Obama will decide whether he will live up to his campaign promises about dealing seriously with the challenge of cyber security by creating a White House office to direct government activity and coordinate with the private sector. None of the options being served up to him will create the stand alone White House office that is needed to provide the leadership on this issue.
The reasons that this decision is important have been spread across the media this last month. Among the facts revealed are that foreign intelligence services have penetrated the control systems of the US electric power grid and have left behind "logic bombs" and "trap doors;" data about America's latest fighter aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II, has been copied off the networks of defense contractors and sent overseas; the Pentagon plans to appoint a new four star general to run a new Cyber Command based on the National Security Agency (NSA); and a National Academy of Sciences blue ribbon panel has urged caution about the US engaging in offensive cyber war.
Blue ribbon panels have been strongly recommending the creation of a coordinated government response to cyber security since the Marsh Commission reported to President Clinton in 1997. As a service to the new president, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) empaneled members of Congress and other experts last year to review how a new administration should deal with the issue. Their unanimous recommendation was the establishment of a White House Office of Cyber Security to energize and rationalize the myriad, ineffective government programs to secure cyberspace. Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) and other Members have legislation pending to do just that.
It's not just the plans for the F-35 that have been stolen. Information technology experts in and out of government believe that American corporations are regularly losing to foreign cyber espionage (most likely China's) what gives the US firms their competitive edge: the results of expense R&D, engineering plans, chemical and biological formulas, complex software, even customer lists and pricing data. No company, no matter how large, can defend itself effectively against the techniques of sophisticated foreign cyber war organizations and intelligence services. They must rely on the government to so do. Yet the government is in disarray, like a Crew team without a cocksen, making little forward progress, despite massive expenditures of effort.
Obama is now being told by economic advisor Larry Summers that those advocating greater coordination of efforts on cyber security are misguided, that they seek to impose intrusive and costly regulation on industry, and would stifle innovation. Summer's solution is that someone in his office, which is busy with other things, should have equal responsibility to deal with this set of cyber challenges with another official buried somewhere on the National Security Council staff. What the CSIS Commission and Congressional hearings have shown is that many industry leaders disagree with Summers; they want a single, senior official to deal with on protecting America's cyberspace. What Summer's wants would mean no one official was accountable or responsible to the President and the Congress on this issue. We have seen what such a lack of leadership has produced thus far, unaddressed and escalating cyber threats to both our national security and national economy. The Economic Advisor should have a role in reviewing any proposal that would regulate industry, but he should not have the power to prevent the US government from establishing a new office to deal with a serious new challenge.
President Obama has been presented with more complex and important issues than any American leader in my lifetime. One of the difficulties any executive has in such a circumstance is spotting the crucial decisions that he must make now on what are comparatively quiet issues, decisions that will have significant future consequences. If Obama reneges on his campaign pledge to create a White House Office on Cyber Security to lead US government efforts, one day he or some future President may wish he had done otherwise, as the noise from the White House's back up electric generator fills the Oval Office and the President looks out on a city darkened by cyber attack.