Obama Is Creating a New Agency to Combat Cyberthreats

The $35 million cyberhub is intended to better coordinate intelligence among government agencies to ward off hacks like the one that brought Sony Pictures to its knees.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Feb. 10, 2015, 5:02 a.m.

The White House on Tues­day an­nounced the cre­ation of a new agency de­signed to com­bat cy­ber­threats and to co­ordin­ate di­git­al in­tel­li­gence among fed­er­al agen­cies.

The Cy­ber Threat In­tel­li­gence In­teg­ra­tion Cen­ter is de­signed to “con­nect the dots” among cy­ber­threats fa­cing the United States, “so that rel­ev­ant de­part­ments and agen­cies are aware of these threats in as close to real time as pos­sible,” a White House of­fi­cial said in a state­ment.

“No ex­ist­ing agency has the re­spons­ib­il­ity for per­form­ing these func­tions, so we need these gaps to be filled to help the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment meet its re­spons­ib­il­it­ies in cy­ber­se­cur­ity,” the of­fi­cial said.

The cen­ter rep­res­ents the latest step in a broad­er push by the White House to bet­ter pro­tect na­tion­al se­cur­ity and cor­por­ate in­terests from ma­li­cious hack­ers, a con­cern that meta­stas­ized fol­low­ing the Sony Pic­tures hack last Thanks­giv­ing. It was form­ally an­nounced by Lisa Monaco, as­sist­ant to the pres­id­ent for home­land se­cur­ity and coun­terter­ror­ism, at an event at the Wilson Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day af­ter­noon.

The $35 mil­lion agency will by­pass con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al and be cre­ated through a pres­id­en­tial memor­andum un­der au­thor­ity gran­ted by the 2004 In­tel­li­gence Re­form and Ter­ror­ism Pre­ven­tion Act.

Pres­id­ent Obama has made shor­ing up the na­tion’s cy­ber­de­fenses a top pri­or­ity this year, a goal that was in large part spurred by the dev­ast­at­ing Sony hack, which of­fi­cials have blamed on North Korea. The pres­id­ent last month rolled out a le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­al that seeks to in­crease in­form­a­tion-shar­ing between the gov­ern­ment and the private sec­tor about se­cur­ity vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies and po­ten­tial cy­ber­threats.

Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment also pre­views a speech Obama will give at a cy­ber­se­cur­ity sum­mit at Stan­ford Uni­versity on Fri­day. It is widely ex­pec­ted that the pres­id­ent will sign an ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion that will co­di­fy stand­ards un­der which com­pan­ies can share cy­ber­threat data with the Na­tion­al Cy­ber­se­cur­ity and Com­mu­nic­a­tions In­teg­ra­tion Cen­ter, a sep­ar­ate “cy­ber­hub” housed at the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment.

Both Obama and Re­pub­lic­ans have re­peatedly iden­ti­fied cy­ber­se­cur­ity as one of a hand­ful of im­port­ant policy aren­as where sub­stant­ive bi­par­tis­an­ship is achiev­able this year. But aside from a few hear­ings, Con­gress has not yet moved for­ward on a so-called in­form­a­tion-shar­ing pro­pos­al, and some law­makers have in­dic­ated they view Obama’s pro­pos­al as more of a ref­er­ence point than a road map.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates are also wary about in­form­a­tion-shar­ing, hav­ing warned for years that giv­ing the gov­ern­ment more doors through which to ac­cess user in­form­a­tion could ex­pand its sur­veil­lance cap­ab­il­it­ies — a re­frain that has only grown louder since the Ed­ward Snowden dis­clos­ures. Many groups have said they will not sup­port any in­form­a­tion-shar­ing le­gis­la­tion if Con­gress does not first re­form the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s do­mest­ic spy­ing au­thor­ity.

Some im­me­di­ately viewed the new cen­ter as du­plic­at­ive of the DHS cy­ber­hub and wor­ried that its place­ment with­in the in­tel­li­gence com­munity could pose ad­di­tion­al pri­vacy risks.

“We have all of this dis­par­ate activ­ity go­ing on in the cur­rent gov­ern­ment struc­ture, and in­stead of get­ting that in or­der and mak­ing our or­gan­iz­a­tion ef­fi­cient and mean­ing­ful, we are now adding an­oth­er lay­er of bur­eau­cracy,” said Amie Stepan­ovich, seni­or policy coun­sel with Ac­cess, a di­git­al-rights group. “It’s os­tens­ibly cre­at­ing a new sur­veil­lance pro­gram. It’s just go­ing to be an­oth­er con­fus­ing lay­er of sur­veil­lance struc­ture that people are go­ing to be sub­jec­ted to.”

But Monaco pushed back on those as­ser­tions dur­ing her talk at the Wilson Cen­ter.

“This is filling a crit­ic­al gap. … It’s not du­plic­at­ive at all,” she said, adding that no gov­ern­ment en­tity cur­rently ex­ists to co­ordin­ate “cy­ber­threat as­sess­ments.”

In a bid to quell pri­vacy con­cerns, Monaco stressed that the new cen­ter would not col­lect any new data, but merely help man­age, in­teg­rate, and ana­lyze in­tel­li­gence gathered by oth­er agen­cies, such as the NSA, the CIA and the FBI.

Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment is the latest in­dic­a­tion Obama plans to move quickly on bol­ster­ing cy­ber­se­cur­ity, and his ac­tions this week are likely in­ten­ded to ca­jole Con­gress in­to keep­ing pace on what the pres­id­ent has called a crit­ic­al na­tion­al se­cur­ity need. Monaco re­peatedly urged Con­gress to act swiftly on passing in­form­a­tion-shar­ing le­gis­la­tion, not­ing that the Sony hack was a “game-changer.”

The White House said the Cy­ber Threat In­tel­li­gence In­teg­ra­tion Cen­ter, which will be part of the Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence, is “still be­ing stood up” but that it an­ti­cip­ates an ini­tial staff of about 50, to be gathered from across de­part­ments and agen­cies.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Monaco, likened the new agency to the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter, an earli­er it­er­a­tion of which was formed in 2003 to im­prove the gov­ern­ment’s col­lec­tion and dis­sem­in­a­tion of vi­tal ter­ror­ism in­tel­li­gence. Like the new cy­ber­cen­ter, the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter was in part a re­sponse to a seis­mic event: The 9/11 com­mis­sion re­com­men­ded its form­a­tion fol­low­ing its in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

This post has been up­dated with re­marks from Lisa Monaco.

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