WASHINGTON -- President Bush quietly announced yesterday his plans to launch a program targeting terrorists and others who would seek to attack the United States via the Internet, according to lawmakers and budget documents.
Bush requested $154 million in preliminary funding for the initiative, which current and former government officials say is expected to become a seven-year, multibillion-dollar program to track threats in cyberspace on both government and private networks.
But lawmakers, who received briefings on the initiative only recently, continue to have many questions, and some remain concerned, about whether the program has adequate privacy protections.
There might be additional, perhaps classified, requests for money for the initiative, which would be run by the Department of Homeland Security but draw on the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. A former government official familiar with the proposal said the total start-up costs that have been discussed are about $400 million.
The proposal "will enhance the security of the Government's civilian cyber networks and will further address emerging threats," Bush wrote to Congress as part of his request for additional money for cyber security and other counterterrorism measures.
The initiative would first develop a comprehensive cyber security program for the government and then do the same for private networks, the former government official said.
This announcement was the White House's first public suggestion of the highly classified program, known to some internally as the "Cyber Initiative." Congressional aides said they were told in a secret briefing Monday that the money requested yesterday was start-up funding for the initiative.
At the White House, spokesman Sean Kevelighan would say only that the money would be used for "increased monitoring capabilities, as well as to increase the security of our networks."
The Sun first disclosed the program in September. Plans for the initiative call for an effort led by the Homeland Security Department with significant support from the NSA and other intelligence agencies, which have more extensive experience in cyber security matters, according to current and former officials familiar with the program.
In plans under discussion, the number of people who would staff the initiative has been in the range of 1,000 to 2,000.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has been coordinating the planning effort because it involves multiple intelligence agencies.
Congressional reaction yesterday was mixed.
"The proposal may be long overdue, but there are too many questions on how it will be implemented and how it will avoid the fate of past failed plans that remain unanswered," Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. "I hope the answers to those questions will come shortly so that cyber security no longer remains on the government's back burner."
Thompson had expressed concerns about the legality of the program and whether it provides sufficient privacy protections, and an aide said yesterday that those concerns persisted after the briefing.
On the Senate side, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who chairs the Senate committee overseeing Homeland Security, praised the administration's new initiative, though he said he sought details.
"I am encouraged that the Department of Homeland Security is finally taking a strong, leadership role in domestic cyber security," Lieberman said in a statement. "On first impression, and without the benefit of the details, this appears to be a step toward better protection of government computers and information."
A Senate aide familiar with the briefings said that while "there are really no details" on how the program would work, officials in the briefing suggested that the "NSA was not going to be doing [Homeland Security Department] work."
Lawmakers overseeing the Homeland Security Department demanded briefings for several weeks before receiving the classified briefings late Monday and early yesterday in advance of Bush's budget request. Another briefing for lawmakers took place yesterday morning.
A congressional aide familiar with the briefings said the officials, including representatives from Homeland Security, McConnell's office, the NSA and the FBI, left lawmakers with many unanswered questions.
"It's really unclear who is doing what and how this is being implemented," said the congressional aide familiar with the briefings, adding that questions remain about what the roles of the NSA, FBI and other agencies will be, given past revelations about warrantless domestic surveillance.
The House Intelligence Committee also received briefings recently, but a committee aide said the panel wanted more detailed information. A spokeswoman for the Senate Intelligence Committee declined to comment on whether the committee had been briefed.
To pay for the launch of the initiative, Bush proposed cutting back several homeland security and law enforcement programs, including funding for the Coast Guard, Hurricane Katrina rebuilding, border security, Homeland Security's inspector general's office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Kevelighan said that shifting that money to cyber security and other counterterrorism programs would "utilize funding resources more effectively."
A new intelligence initiative would develop a comprehensive cyber security program for the federal government, then do the same for private networks.