US Cyber Chief Wants Secure Network for Civilian Gov’t. Agency

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

General Keith Alexander, director of the new U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, is advocating the creation of a “secure, protected zone” in which critical infrastructure like the financial industry, the power grid and the defense industrial base would operate on the Internet, he said in an interview with select group of reporters Wednesday afternoon ahead of his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning.

Though Gen. Alexander noted that such a solution was just one that is on the table, he stressed that the federal government, including U.S. Cyber Command, will likely be part of a team approach to helping protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from devastating cyber attacks.

The White House, he said, is leading a group to look at cybersecurity policy and at the authorities currently in place to protect the nation’s networks, including critical infrastructure networks.

“The question is, how do we do it,” Alexander said. “Doing it, technically, is fairly straightforward. Getting everybody satisfied is the harder thing.” Any such plan, he said, would leave the commercial Internet, “where our kids might communicate,” untouched.

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For today, Cyber Command’s role is limited strictly to defending Department of Defense networks from cyber attacks and standing ready to execute offensive cyber operations on command, and as directed help the Department of Homeland Security defend broader government networks. The White House and Congress will ultimately lead the way in better defining any broader role that Cyber Command will have.

That said, Alexander confirmed that his team has taken part in analysis of the recent Stuxnet worm that successfully attacked several power plant control systems worldwide earlier this summer.

Alexander is also already working on plans to help protect the defense industrial base, a key task in the wake of successful attacks against defense contractor networks over the past few years that have stolen sensitive information. “It gets to, how do we provide them a level of protection analogous to what the government would have, so that their secrets aren’t going to be stolen,” he said.

U.S. Cyber Command is slated to formally reach full operating capability on October 1, and Alexander plans Thursday morning to inform Congress of the progress being made at Cyber Command as well as the military service components that will support it. About 1,000 military, civilian, and contractor employees work in Cyber Command today, supporting, among other things, an always-on joint operations center to direct the defense and operations of DoD networks.

The command is collocated at Maryland’s Fort Meade with the National Security Agency, which Alexander also leads. Alexander characterized the collocation as critical to Cyber Command’s success, since NSA can provide both the technical talent key to protecting defense networks and the intelligence key to helping attribute attacks to particular people, organizations or nations.
Each military service has a unit that will support Cyber Command’s mission. Among them, the Army Forces Cyber Command will reach full operating capability along with U.S. Cyber Command on October 1, and the 24th Air Force recently passed an inspector general audit of its own operating capability and is thus well on its way to full capability as well.

Alexander said that he has done some scenario walkthroughs with the Department of Defense, the White House and other federal agencies, noting that from a military perspective, he likes to run wargames to better understand capabilities and authorities. “I don’t want to fail in meeting the expectations of the American people, the White House and Congress when something happens in cyberspace, and they say, ‘well, where was Cyber Command on this?'”

In fact, U.S. Cyber Command was born out of decisions made in the aftermath of Operation Buckshot Yankee, the military’s 14-month response to a worm that spread on defense networks via flash drive in 2008, exfiltrating military information along the way to what Pentagon leaders, including Alexander, say was a foreign nation state. “We’ve got to do a better job at defending [our networks], and that’s why we put U.S. Cyber Command together,” Alexander said. Cyber Command’s budget was about $120 million this fiscal year, and will be about $150 million in fiscal 2011, mostly going to contracts.

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More broadly, Alexander applauded efforts underway in Congress and the White House to look at how laws and policy need to be changed to address today’s cybersecurity problems. “The laws we did 35 years ago are laws now that we need to update,” he said, noting that legal and policy changes will likely need to go through revisions to get them just right, and that explaining the changes to the American people will be a key part of the process. “We can protect civil liberties and privacy and still do our mission.”

“This is one of the most critical problems our country faces,” Alexander said. “We’re losing money today, and there is a real probability in the future this country will be hit by a destructive attack. We need to be ready for it.”

Email J. Nicolas Hoover at nhoover@techweb.com

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