NSA, other spy agencies enlisted in effort to address cyber vulnerability

Published 28 January 2008

Prepare for another heated NSA-domestic spying debate: The Bush administration issues secret directive on 8 January — informally known as the “cyber initiative” — expanding the intelligence community’s role in monitoring Internet traffic; the goal is to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies’ computer systems

At times physicians do heal themselves. President George Bush signed a directive earlier this month which expands the intelligence community’s role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies’ computer systems. The directive, the content of which is classified, authorizes the intelligence agencies, in particular the National Security Agency (NSA), to monitor the computer networks of all federal agencies — including ones they have not previously monitored. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima writes that until now, the government’s efforts to protect itself from cyber-attacks — attacks launched by hackers, organized crime, foreign governments, and terrorist organizations trying to steal sensitive data, have been piecemeal. Under the new initiative, a task force headed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will coordinate efforts to identify the source of cyber-attacks against government computer systems. As part of that effort, DHS will work to protect the systems and the Pentagon will devise strategies for counterattacks against the intruders.

In the past year and a half there have attacks on networks at the State, Commerce, Defense, and DHS. U.S. officials and cyber-security experts have said Chinese Web sites were involved in several of the biggest attacks back to 2005, including some at the country’s nuclear-energy labs and large defense contractors. The NSA has particular expertise in monitoring a vast, complex array of communications systems overseas. The prospect of directing thsi expertise at domestic networks is raising concerns, just as the NSA’s role in the government’s warrantless domestic-surveillance program has been controversial. “Agencies designed to gather intelligence on foreign entities should not be in charge of monitoring our computer systems here at home,” said Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Lawmakers with oversight of homeland security and intelligence matters say they have pressed the administration for months for details.

The classified joint directive, signed 8 January and called the National Security Presidential Directive 54/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23, has not been previously disclosed. Plans to expand the NSA’s role in cyber-security were reported in the Baltimore Sun in September. According to congressional aides and former White House officials with knowledge of the program, the directive outlines measures collectively referred to as the “cyber initiative,” aiming to secure the government’s computer systems against attacks by foreign adversaries and other intruders. It will cost billions of dollars, which the White House is expected to request in its fiscal 2009 budget. “The president’s directive represents a continuation of our efforts to secure government networks, protect against constant intrusion attempts, address vulnerabilities and anticipate future threats,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. He would not discuss the initiative’s details.

Nakashima correctly notes that the initiative foreshadows a policy debate over the proper role for government as the Internet becomes more dangerous.