House panel chief demands details of cybersecurity plan

Sun Follow-up

October 24, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee called on the Bush administration yesterday to delay the planned launch of a multi- billion-dollar cybersecurity initiative so that Congress could have time to evaluate it.

Rep. Bennie Thompson said he wants to make sure the new program is legal before it is launched. In an interview, the Mississippi Democrat said he had been told that President Bush might unveil the initiative as early as next week.

Known internally as the "Cyber Initiative," the program is designed to use the spying capabilities of the National Security Agency and other agencies to protect government and private communications networks from infiltration by terrorists and hackers. The Sun reported the existence of the program last month, but Thompson said the administration has refused to discuss the initiative with members of his committee, despite repeated requests.

In a letter this week to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Thompson demanded that his committee receive a briefing on details of the plan. He also warned that the "centralization of power" envisioned under the initiative raised "significant questions" that should be answered before the program is launched.

Thompson - whose panel oversees the Homeland Security Department, which would run the initiative - said he was unaware of the program's existence until it was revealed by The Sun in a Sept. 20 article.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman said Chertoff had received Thompson's letter, which was dated Monday, and would respond "in a timely fashion."

"We do agree that cybersecurity is a very important issue, and that is why since the beginning of this congressional session DHS has provided more than a half a dozen briefings to the House Homeland Security Committee on cyberthreats and related issues," said the spokeswoman, Laura Keehner.

Thompson said that if the administration continues to give his panel the silent treatment, he will consider issuing a congressional subpoena.

"You have to put sunshine on a program so sensitive as this," he said. The administration is saying that "`you have to believe us.' Obviously, as a nation of laws, we can't accept that."

Thompson said that because the program involves the NSA and similar agencies, questions about privacy and domestic surveillance would be of particular concern.

"What's the legal framework about which civil rights and civil liberties, as well as constitutional issues, will be protected?" he asked.

The Cyber Initiative is the second administration program in recent weeks to draw criticism from Congress after it was revealed in a news report. Last month, after a report in The Wall Street Journal, the administration was forced to put a new domestic satellite surveillance program on hold in response to congressional protests.

Few details about the Cyber Initiative are known because the administration has been extremely secretive about the program, much of which is highly classified. Current and former security officials have spoken about the initiative on condition of anonymity because it has not been announced.

The multiagency effort is being coordinated by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, a former NSA director.

Since last year, there have been a series of meetings among representatives from McConnell's office, the NSA, Homeland Security and the White House, said a senior intelligence official. And at the NSA, several dozen people, including members of the general counsel's office, have been working on the initiative for the past year, the official said.

Plans call for a seven-year, multi-billion-dollar effort with as many as 1,000 or more employees from Homeland Security, the NSA and other agencies, according to current and former government officials familiar with the initiative.

The first phase would be a system to protect government networks from cyberattacks, with a later phase designed to protect private networks that control such systems as communications, nuclear power plants and electric-power grids, said a former government official familiar with the proposal.

The NSA's new domestic role would require a revision of the agency's charter, according to the senior intelligence official. In the past, the NSA's cyberdefense efforts have been focused on the government's classified networks.

Officials have debated internally whether to locate these employees in one facility in the Washington area or in multiple posts around the country, the senior intelligence official said.

They have also discussed different ways to structure the program, said a former Pentagon official familiar with the initiative. Options include: creating a special office similar to the government response to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik; a White House coordination group modeled on the drug czar's office; and a "virtual" organization that coordinates activities among various agencies.

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