September 1, 2005
Dear Assistant Secretary,
By now the congratulatory speeches and handshakes from President Bush are over and you've got to get to work. Let me congratulate you on your new job and offer some advice.
Your first task should be to solve the department's own problems. I'm sure you remember that report from May 26, which concluded that Homeland Security had fulfilled precisely zero of its 13 key cybersecurity responsibilities--a damning indictment of an agency that's supposed to be the brains of the federal government in this area.
In that report, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the department "cannot effectively function as the cybersecurity focal point intended by law and national policy" at the moment, and even warned that it may be "unprepared to effectively address cyber emergencies."
I know that lackluster performance in the past wasn't your fault. And it may have been inevitable; when the department was created nearly three years ago, it was bequeathed a clutch of unrelated computer security centers from the FBI, the Defense Department, the Commerce Department and the Energy Department.
Just as important is your relationship with the private sector: the technologists, network administrators and executives who are the ones busy expanding the Internet and finding better ways to secure it.
You may wish to consider the performance of Richard Clarke, one of your predecessors, as an example not to follow.
Clarke made a habit of showing up at security conferences and lecturing the attendees on topics that they usually knew more about than he did.
In one memorable appearance at the 2002 RSA Conference, Clarke proclaimed: "If you spend more on coffee than on IT security, then you will be hacked. What's more, you deserve to be hacked."
Those kind of statements may have endeared Clarke to the media, but they weren't exactly a way to establish lasting relationships with technology companies. No wonder he left his White House post in a huff.
You might want to demonstrate a bit less hubris. Remember, you've been appointed as a servant of the American people--not their
Declan McCullagh is CNET News.com's chief political correspondent. He spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., chronicling the busy intersection between technology and politics. Previously, he was the Washington bureau chief for Wired News, and a reporter for Time.com, Time magazine and HotWired. McCullagh has taught journalism at American University and been an adjunct professor at Case Western University.
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