Analysis: Does Congress understand cybersecurity, technology use?

Monday - 10/12/2009, 6:33am EDT

Federal News Radio's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
FederalNewsRadio

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress provides both oversight and funding for the activities of federal government agencies. But how well do Capitol Hill lawmakers do when it comes to really understanding the federal agencies they oversee?

Recently, we covered the opening of a local museum's exhibit on cybersecurity, and a panel on technology in government, and asked the question, "How well does Congress understand the challenges involved in that area?"

At the opening of the International Spy Museum's gallery on cybersecurity entitled "Weapons of Mass Disruption", Jim Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a co-author of a report on cybersecurity submitted to President Obama at the start of his presidency, cites what he calls 'the conversion experience':

You can talk to congressmen before the classified briefing, and it's like, 'why are you bothering me with this stuff?' When you talk to them after the classified briefing, what they say is, 'Is it safe to do online banking?' But it also helps if you're a member of Congress, and say, you meet with some Tibetan human rights activists, and someone gets on your office network, and harvests your files. So what I hear from people on the Hill is a lot of interest. There's currently 18 bills pending on cybersecurity, that's amazing. Second, it's bipartisan, it's non-partisan, both parties agree we have a real problem, and we have to do something about it. So when you see Senator Rockefeller, Senator Snowe, Senator Lieberman, Senator Collins, you see a real bipartisan effort, and that's encouraging.

That said, Lewis also thinks that we're unlikely to see any action on those cybersecurity bills this year because, as he told the Spy Museum audience, "there are other things on the agenda that will eat it up, but in 2010, we'll see some progress on the Hill."

Also speaking at the Spy Museum opening, Mike McConnell, the former Director of National Intelligence, believes members of Congress understanding of cybersecurity issues is improving.

The question is, do they understand? Broadly, not yet, but increasingly, members are getting the briefings and so on, so we're on a positive trend.

McConnell goes on to say, however, that it's the tradition of Congress (and the government) to be mostly reactive, and almost never proactive to issues like cybersecurity. He cites the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, as a reaction to the banking crisis then, and the creation of Social Security as a reaction to the Great Depression.

When it comes to cybersecurity, McConnell believes that Congress and the government must move beyond the impulse for top secret plans to combat cyberthreats, as happened during the most recent Bush administration, and having an open and public discussion about our vulnerability, "even if it means revealing some of our thinking on what some of us might do in an attack scenario."

At the recent Excellence in Government conference on the use of technology and the government, Vivek Kundra, Office of Management and Budget's Federal Chief Information Officer, was recently asked to comment on the challenge of engaging Congress on matters related to technology, given the legislative branch's oversight responsibility, and 'power of the purse':

We're working very closely with the Congress. If you look at what we did with the IT dashboard when we launched it, we worked closely with the Hill, we worked closely with the Government Accountability Office, and the IG community. But part of the problem we have is how to optimize the spending within the federal government. Horizontally, the greatest challenge we have is to deliver on these platforms around procurement systems. The challenge comes in terms of the specific bureaus and showing enduring value to moving to a platform-centric environment rather than a vertical environment.

Kundra says until now, the challenge with the Hill has been moving past the old notions of "data centers and infrastructure."

Aneesh Chopra, the President's Chief Technology Officer, adds in answer to the same question, that all the key legislation now proposed by the White House, including health care reform, energy, higher education, all have provisions for transparency and efficiency using new technologies, as he puts it "as a core component of the legislation."

David McClure, associate administrator with the Office of Citizen Services at General Services Administration, calls the area of congressional oversight a "thorny area", citing the fact that the Congress is composed of 535 individuals who are running for re-election almost from the day they are elected to office.

The secret is results, both short term and long term, we've got to perform, we've got to deliver, but we've also got to stay on course.

McClure concluded by saying even when agency heads are leaving office at the end of a Presidential term, it's their job to make sure that any project they initiate with Congress's help must be "moving toward a good target."

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