Obama to create 'cyber czar' in awareness effort

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is creating a "cyber czar" within the White House to coordinate the nation's computer security. Critics already say the post will not have enough authority to haul the government into the digital age.

Government and private industry need to better protect the nation's computer networks, the White House warns in a plan to be rolled out today as the administration sets broad goals for dealing with cyber threats.

President Obama is expected to say that cyber security is a top priority of the administration and to call for a new education campaign to raise public awareness of the challenges and threats cyber security involves.

Completed six weeks ago, the cyber report has been delayed because policymakers in and outside the White House have been at loggerheads over how much power and budget-making authority the new office will have.

According to officials familiar with the discussions, the cyber czar would be a special assistant to the president and would be supported by a new cyber directorate within the National Security Council. The cyber czar would also work with the National Economic Council, said the officials, who described the plan on condition of anonymity because it has not been publicly released.

The special assistant title is not as high in the White House hierarchy as some officials sought. It would not give the czar direct, unfettered access to the president. Instead, the official would report to senior NSC officials -- a situation many say will make it difficult to make major changes within the calcified federal bureaucracy.

Government and military officials have acknowledged that U.S. computer networks are constantly assailed by attacks and scans, ranging from nuisance hacking to more nefarious probes and attacks. Some suggest that the actions at times are a form of cyber espionage from other nations, such as China.

Federal officials and corporate leaders familiar with the review say it will urge private industry to better protect networks against hackers and cyber criminals. The plan will call for accountability from both the government and industry in ensuring the security of the nation's networks.

The study will depict the U.S. as a digital nation that needs to provide the education required to keep pace with technology, and attract and retain a cyber-savvy work force.

But the review does not explicitly dictate how the government or private industry should tighten digital defenses. Critics say the cyber czar will not have sufficient budgetary and policymaking authority over securing computer systems and spending.

Dale Meyerrose, a retired Air Force major general now vice president at Harris Corp., said the administration needs to improve the ways government agencies use and secure their computer systems and how they spend their budgets.

The White House, Meyerrose said, needs "to empower this person to solve the problems." But, he added, "this is an initial step and to expect it to completely change how we run government is asking way too much."

Because of lingering uncertainty over the cyber czar's authority and presidential access, several contenders for the post took themselves out of the running, according to one former administration official.

But a handful of candidates were still being mentioned as late as this week. Obama, however, is not expected to announce who will get the job during Friday's unveiling of the review, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the selection process is ongoing.

Obama ordered a 60-day cyber review shortly after taking office, and the exhaustive study has been lauded by government officials and well as technology executives. The review was led by Melissa Hathaway, once an aide to President George W. Bush and appointed by Obama to fashion a broad policy for the computer systems that govern everything from power grids and airline traffic to military computers.

Corporate leaders who met with Hathaway praised her efforts to reach out to private industry. Franck Journoud, manager of information security policy for BSA, said the administration had a "healthy debate" over how to ensure cyber security without limiting innovation and economic development.

Others cautioned that expectations may have been set too high for the review's results.

Lawmakers are already taking steps to shape the government's cyber policies, and in some cases may call for stronger action that the president is expected to take.

Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who chairs the Senate's commerce committee, has introduced legislation with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that would establish a national cybersecurity adviser office, led by someone who would report directly to the president.

U.S. cyber efforts have been plagued with turf battles and confusion over who controls the country's vast computer systems.

Earlier this year the head of the nation's cybersecurity center, Rod Beckstrom, resigned, bluntly complaining about a shortage of money for the center and a clash over whether the National Security Agency should control cyber efforts.

The role of the NSA -- the agency oversees electronic intelligence-gathering -- in protecting domestic computer networks has triggered debate, particularly among privacy and civil liberties groups who oppose giving such control to U.S. spy agencies.

Intelligence officials argue, however, that they must be involved in order to adequately defend the country and its networks.

Although Obama's new review put overall control and coordination of cyber at the White House, it reportedly does not get into the NSA debate.