WASHINGTON — Nearly six months after the Obama administration turned its focus on computer security, the White House is still struggling to name a cyber coordinator, delaying efforts to better organize and manage the nation's increasingly vulnerable digital defense.
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Experts say it is an almost impossible job to fill, and several executives have already turned it down. But the resignation Monday of White House cyber director Melissa Hathaway now leaves a gap in the administration's campaign to better protect a government that is constantly assailed by computer attacks and scans.
Those familiar with the search process say that one problem may be that President Barack Obama's decision to have the coordinator report to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council creates a complex structure, with little budgeting or broad decision-making authority.
"Clearly every day we don't have someone at the helm of this problem, we're exposed more than we should be," said Roger Thornton, chief technology officer for Fortify Software, and a cyber security expert. "I do think, though, that this is a testament to how new and difficult this all is."
Security remains priority
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Tuesday that cyber security remains a major priority for Obama. "The president is personally committed to finding the right person for this job, and a rigorous selection process is well under way," Shapiro said.
The hunt for a cyber czar has been fraught with problems, as the administration seeks someone with the requisite political and technological skills and a reputation strong enough to command respect from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill.
Several experts, who agreed to describe the private selection process on condition of anonymity, also said that National Security Adviser James Jones, National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel have conflicting views of the job.
In addition, while industry executives say the job must be rooted in the White House in order to have any power, lawmakers grumble that such a job would be beyond the control of Congress.
"Melissa Hathaway's departure underscores the continued lack of leadership within the Obama administration on cyber security issues," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Tuesday. "The administration should take this time to reconsider the merits of putting a cyber czar within the White House — with no operational authority and shielded from congressional oversight."
Hathaway's departure was no surprise. While highly regarded by the cyber industry, she was a holdover from the Bush administration.
‘Almost superhuman’ position
Hathaway initially worked at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and had been temporarily shifted to the White House cyber job. She was scheduled to work in that post through early April, but her stay was extended until August 9 so that she could complete the 60-day cyber review ordered up by Obama.
Describing the cyber job as an "almost superhuman" position," Dan Caprio, former technology policy adviser in the Bush administration, said the administration must find someone who can be politically effective inside the White House and have the stature to command respect from the industry executives.
"It's almost an impossible job. There aren't that many people who have that background," said Caprio, now managing director at the Washington law firm of McKenna Long & Aldrich. "We'd all like to see it go faster. But given what they're trying to create, it's normal and they're on the right track."
The nation's cyber security vulnerabilities have been laid bare in recent months, with a number of high profile assaults, including ones that breached a high-tech fighter jet program and the electrical grid, although no classified material was compromised.
Early last month, unknown hackers knocked a number of U.S and South Korean government Web sites off line in a widespread and unusually resilient computer attack.
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