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Army cyber chief: Don't lose feds' high-tech experts to budget cuts

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:13 p.m.
In this Sept. 23, 2010, file photo, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander of Cyber Command, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Foreign leaders are deterred from launching a major electronic attack on vital infrastructure in America because they know such a strike could be traced to its source and would generate a robust response, Alexander, the military's top cyber warrior said during congressional testimony.
Andrew Conte | Tribune-Review
Right to left: Orin Kerr, professor at the George Washington University Law School; Robert Holleyman, president of BSA, The Software Alliance; John Boles, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Cyber Division; Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.

WASHINGTON — Federal budget cuts are affecting the nation's ability to recruit and keep the best cyberwarriors for the fight against hackers and foreign countries plotting computer attacks, the nation's top cyber commander told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, said having to furlough employees because of across-the-board budget cuts under sequestration sends the wrong message to high-tech workers.

“That uncertainty is truly something that complicates their ability to stay with us,” Alexander told members of the House Armed Services intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee. “We're trying to get the great people into cyber. These are technically qualified people. … They're our most valuable assets, and we need to let them know we care about them. All of us.”

Alexander spoke on a day when much of the federal government seemed to turn its attention to computer security concerns: House members held three hearings on the topic. President Obama met in the White House situation room with senior White House and National Security Council officials and 13 CEOs of communications, power and other companies to talk about cybersecurity.

A White House official said Obama and the CEOs “discussed the increasing cyber threats to our critical infrastructure and our economy” and what the federal government is doing to address the threats, including diplomacy and the president's recent executive order on cybersecurity.

“The president and the CEOs discussed how the government and private sector can build on our cooperation to improve the nation's cybersecurity,” the official said “... They discussed the need for cybersecurity legislation (from Congress) to enable government and industry to more effectively address these cyber threats.”

Throughout the day, top lawmakers and other Obama administration officials talked about the need for cooperation among federal agencies to fight computer attacks — and for caution when it comes to preserving Americans' online privacy.

“Our challenge is to create a legal structure that protects the invaluable government and private information that hackers seek to exploit, while allowing the freedom of thought and expression that made this country great,” House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said at another subcommittee hearing.

Jane Holl Lute, deputy secretary to the Department of Homeland Security, called for a “cyber neighborhood watch” in which companies would let the government know about online threats. She said officials in the departments of Defense and Justice are working with Homeland Security to pool their resources.

“There are threats in cyberspace, but we need to mobilize,” Lute told members of the House Homeland Security Committee during a third hearing on critical infrastructure. “The time to act is now.”

The Tribune-Review's ongoing series, “Cyber Rattling: The Next Threat” (www.CyberRattlingTrib.com), has warned that adversaries are quickly moving from attacks that cause disruptions and thefts to ones that could wreak physical damage. Experts have warned that critical infrastructure — such as the nation's electricity grids, cell and other communications networks, banking and transportation networks like those run by the CEOs with whom Obama met on Wednesday — are vulnerable.

Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said foreign countries are conducting reconnaissance on America's utilities and have penetrated computer systems controlling gas and water systems and electricity grids.

Russia and Iran are among the world's worst offenders, McCaul said. He blamed Iran for “denial of service” attacks on U.S. banks in recent months that have created inconveniences for customers.

China's military has been cited by experts as being behind some hacking.

Chinese officials have denied the claims and accused the United States of engaging in such attacks. A spokesman for the Chinese ambassador to the United States told the Trib several weeks ago that China was willing to work with American officials to combat cyber attacks. That offer was repeated this week.

Alexander told lawmakers that cybersecurity and online privacy are not mutually exclusive.

“There is a way to do this that ensures civil liberties and privacy, and that ensures the protection of the country,” he said.

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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