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President Barack Obama is set to announce Friday the creation of a "cyber czar" post to oversee the safety of US computer networks as the Pentagon plans to create a new military command dedicated to computer warfare. Both developments are part of the Obama administration's effort to better protect the nation's digital security in the age of cyberwarfare.
The New York Times reports that Mr. Obama is expected to sign a classified order creating the new "cyber" military command in the coming weeks. The Times notes that the Pentagon's plan has not yet been officially presented to Obama, but that "the United States already has a growing number of computer weapons in its arsenal and must prepare strategies for their use — as a deterrent or alongside conventional weapons — in a wide variety of possible future conflicts."
Officials declined to describe potential offensive operations, but said they now viewed cyberspace as comparable to more traditional battlefields.
"We are not comfortable discussing the question of offensive cyberoperations, but we consider cyberspace a war-fighting domain," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. "We need to be able to operate within that domain just like on any battlefield, which includes protecting our freedom of movement and preserving our capability to perform in that environment."
Although Pentagon civilian officials and military officers said the new command was expected to initially be a subordinate headquarters under the military's Strategic Command, which controls nuclear operations as well as cyberdefenses, it could eventually become an independent command.
The Times adds that the major point of contention over US plans for cyberwarfare is which government agency will take the lead: the Pentagon or the National Security Agency (NSA), which has more experience in computer operations.
News of the Pentagon's plans comes as Obama is set to announce the creation of a "cyber czar" position, which will oversee the security of US computer networks, both federal and private. The Associated Press reports that the new czar, who will be named in the coming days, will "oversee an enhanced security system for the nation's computer networks."
On Friday, Obama is expected to lay out broad goals for dealing with cyber threats while depicting 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. He also is expected to call for a new education campaign to raise public awareness of the challenges and threats related to cyber security.
The review, however, will not dictate how the government or private industry should tighten digital defenses. Critics say the cyber czar will not have sufficient budgetary and policy-making authority over securing computer systems and spending.
Officials familiar with the discussions say 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 Wall Street Journal reports that candidates for cyber czar include acting White House cybersecurity chief Melissa Hathaway, who oversaw the administration review that prompted the creation of the position; Microsoft Corp. Vice President Scott Charney, who formerly ran the Justice Department's computer-crime unit; and Maureen Baginski, who has held posts at the NSA and the FBI. The Journal also reports that Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the current head of the NSA, is expected to lead the Pentagon's cybercommand once it has been created by Obama.
The Department of Homeland Security reports the number of cyber attacks on government and private networks increased from 4,095 in 2005 to 72,065 in 2008.
This month, a Transportation Department audit – carried out after hackers got into a support system containing personnel records – indicated the nation's air-traffic control system could be at risk.
Hathaway expressed concern that critical infrastructures such as the nation's power grid and financial networks could be vulnerable. "God forbid if somebody were to take down and or manipulate our financial system, and what would we do, and would it make the current financial crisis look like a walk in the park?" she asked.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently told reporters the biggest cyber threat facing the United States is from nation states, particularly Russia and China. "I think China is winning the sweepstakes for the origin of most attacks on U.S. persons and organizations," he said.