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Computer defenses at mercy of sequester

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 12:08 a.m.
U.S. Navy
Petty Officer 2nd Class James Rago troubleshoots the video teleconference system of a video information exchange system aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Federal budget cuts from the so-called sequestration, starting Friday, could delay plans by the U.S. Defense Department’s top computer security agency to add 4,000 computer experts. U.S. Navy

Even as President Obama and top lawmakers have declared war on computer attackers, political infighting over federal spending could cut into the very programs designed to keep adversaries at bay, security experts told the Tribune-Review.

The cuts require agencies to eliminate about $85 billion in spending over the rest of the fiscal year, meaning Defense programs would shrink by about 13 percent, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget. Agencies might move money around within accounts, but each would be reduced by that percentage.

Experts whom the Trib contacted were split over the extent of the cuts but agreed the trimming would have some impact on cyber security defense efforts.

“There's going to be a push to make sure security is taken care of, but there are vulnerabilities now,” said Bob Suda, a Washington-based consultant who spent 32 years in the government working on information technology and procurement.

Top military officials at the Army War College in Carlisle wanted to learn about computer security threats after recent hacking attacks on oil and gas plants in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

After inviting experts to a May briefing, they canceled the event because of sequestration budget cuts scheduled to start taking effect on Friday, said Chris Bronk, a former State Department official who was scheduled to attend.

“Because the Army is placed under the sequestration, the Army can't think big,” said Bronk, the Baker Institute Fellow in information technology policy at Rice University in Houston. “People essentially won't have the interactions that would help them learn about what they don't know. If we learned anything about intelligence reform after 9/11, you always need people to tell you what you don't know.”

The budget fight comes as military leaders warn about potential attacks on systems running the nation's power plants, transportation network and other critical infrastructure. Concerns about computer spying by the Chinese and others prompted the Obama administration this week to outline steps for fighting computer attacks.

“We just got past this thing with the Chinese doing us in, and then we turn around and fire the very people trying to keep control of it?” wondered Ronald Marks, a former CIA officer who works as a senior fellow at George Washington University in Washington.

The first cuts could mean layoffs of civilians running basic computer systems on military bases, said Michael Markulec, president of Lumeta, a Somerset, N.J., computer security company that contracts with the government.

“That's not a skill set easily transferred to active duty soldiers,” he said.

Over months, Markulec warned that a steep decline in spending could run deeper to eliminate contracts for companies handling mission-critical computer systems.

Cuts to contractors, however, could focus government spending on the most critical needs, said Alan Paller, founding director of the SANS Institute, a Maryland-based information security training company. He expects to train fewer government workers as a result of the cuts.

“Lots of cyber security contractors are likely to be cut off,” Paller said. “But about 90 percent of the contractors for cyber security are not doing security. They're writing reports. We call it ‘admiring the problem.'”

Long-range, a hiring freeze could delay plans by U.S. Cyber Command, the Defense Department's top computer security agency, to add 4,000 computer experts, said Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer at Deltek, a Virginia-based market research firm for government contractors.

Recent disclosures about attacks on U.S. companies and banks have made computer security a national priority, he said, and administrators must find ways to pay for mission-critical work.

“If you're going to stop doing any kind of defensive measures,” Bjorklund said, “then you are at risk for being attacked or compromised.”

Andrew Conte is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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