NSA Should Oversee Cybersecurity, Intel Chief Says

Kim Zetter Wired.com


Despite the fact that many Americans distrust the National Security Agency for its role in the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program, the agency should be entrusted with securing the nation's telecommunications networks and other cyber infrastructures, President Obama's director of national intelligence told Congress on Wednesday.

Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair told the House intelligence committee (.pdf) that the NSA, rather than the Department of Homeland Security which currently oversees cybersecurity, has the smarts and the skills to secure cyberspace.

"The National Security Agency has the greatest repository of cyber talent," Blair said. "[T]here are some wizards out there at Fort Meade who can do stuff."

Blair added that "because of the offensive mission that they have, they're the ones who know best about what's coming back at us and it's defenses against those sorts of things that we need to be able to build into wider and wider circles."

He acknowledged that the agency had a trust handicap to overcome due to its role in the Bush Administration's secret domestic spying program, and therefore asked Congress to help convince the public that it's the right agency for the task.

"I think there is a great deal of distrust of the National Security Agency and the intelligence community in general playing a role outside of the very narrowly circumscribed role because of some of the history of the FISA issue in years past. . . . So I would like the help of people like you who have studied this closely and served on commissions, the leadership of the committee and finding a way that the American people will have confidence in the supervision, in the oversight of the role of NSA so that it can help protect these wider bodies. So, to me, that's one of the keys things that we have to work on here in the next few months."

Blair is not without support for his view. Paul Kurtz, who led the cybersecurity group on Obama's transition team and was part of Bush's White House National Security Council, recently told Forbes that he supports the NSA taking a prominent role in cybersecurity.

The "NSA has the vast majority of expertise in information assurance inside the U.S. government," Kurtz said. "We have to tap that expertise while respecting privacy and civil liberties. I believe NSA can play a key role with proper oversight."

Obama recently tasked Melissa Hathaway, cybercoordination executive for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to conduct a 60-day review of Bush's Comprehensive National Cyber Security Initiative, a secretive, $30 billion, multi-year plan to address cybersecurity issues.

Hathaway, a former management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, helped develop the classified plan, which many people have criticized for being too secretive, and has since been overseeing its implementation. She is also being touted as the likely candidate to assume the permanent role of cybersecurity czar when Obama fills the position -- a job that will likely be elevated to a presidential advisory position.