3 factors inhibit DOD cyber infrastructure defense

House and Senate budget hearings focused on defining DOD's role in defending a largely civilian cyberspace, and on the challenge of recruiting and retaining the workforce it needs.

The Defense Department is updating its rules of engagement for cyberspace, but its role in this new domain still is evolving, and is complicated by three factors, lawmakers were told during two hearings on the department’s fiscal 2013 cyber operations budget.

The three factors: Much of the information infrastructure making up cyberspace is privately owned and operated, the sources of threats cannot be easily identified, and there is a shortage of cybersecurity talent to use in the nation’s defense.

“If it is an attack, the responsibility falls to the Defense Department” to respond, Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on March 20.

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But distinguishing an attack from an incident or a crime is not simple, and the DOD relies on the assistance of civilian agencies in its defensive role, said Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary for Global Strategic Affairs.

“We believe firmly in a whole-government approach to cybersecurity,” Creedon said. Protecting civilian and private-sector networks is primarily the role of the Homeland Security Department, she said. “DOD would provide assistance as needed, as requested and as required, like responding to a hurricane.”

Some lawmakers were dissatisfied with this parsing of the battlefield.

“I’m not completely convinced that if major networks go down people are not going to look to the Department of Defense and say, ‘Why aren’t you protecting us,’ ” said subcommittee chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

In addition to clarifying its role in cyberspace, the department also is struggling to develop the professional workforce needed to carry out its responsibilities, officials told a Senate panel.

“The key to success in all of our cyber efforts is the talent,” Zachary J. Lemnios, DOD’s assistant secretary for Research and Engineering, told the Senate Armed Forces subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

And that talent is lacking, said Michael A. Wertheimer, director of research and development at the National Security Agency. “The production of computer scientists in our nation is on the decline,” he said, and “we are not recruiting and retraining them.”

The government is competing with private industry, which offers higher pay and a faster career path, for the best and brightest cyber professionals, and too often it is losing. Wertheimer said that 70 percent of computer scientists who leave government employment are resigning to go to the private-sector rather than retiring.

The DOD budget request for fiscal 2013 totals $525.4 billion, which is about $5 billion less than 2012 budget. Requested funding would include support for cooperative efforts with DHS in protecting civilian and private-sector infrastructure. The funding request would allow DOD to continue implementation of its Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace, as well conducting operations including defense of infrastructure deemed critical to national security.

The DOD request also includes $69.4 billion for research and development, including $11.9 billion for early-stage science and technology programs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would get a slight boost from its 2012 funding level. R&D efforts would include $650 million to fund efforts in cybersecurity, explosives detection and chemical-biological response systems.

Although cybersecurity is identified as basic research priority in the budget, Wertheimer said there is a lack of long-term goals in research projects funded at the NSA and that he cannot plan more than three years out. “The money that comes in to us has a very directed purpose,” he said. “That keeps me up at night.”

Budget requests have yet to be approved by Congress, however, and under the most recent budget deal cut by the House and Senate, DOD spending would be cut by 8 to 12 percent beginning in 2013 if significant budget cuts are not made. These cuts would have an impact on cyber operations, DOD CIO Teresa Takai told the House panel.

“We have a number of programs underway that will have to take a reduction” or “a pause,” Takai said. These would include cybersecurity activities as well as IT modernization programs, which include plans to reduce the number of DOD data centers by 115 this year.

Cuts also could affect plans to expand the Defense Industrial Base pilot program in which classified security information is shared by DOD with selected contractors. Alexander said the program is important not only to help the private sector protect its resources, but to help DOD gain the global visibility it needs to identify and defend against threats. “We can only do that if we can see it,” he said.

DOD currently is operating under rules of engagement for cyberspace written in 2004 and currently is updating those rules, which should clarify the department’s role, responsibilities and capabilities in defending not only its own networks but civilian and private resources as well, Alexander said.