Thursday, February 28, 2008


The man President Bush picked to ensure the protection of U.S. computer networks — which involves countering threats from Russian hackers, Chinese spies and Internet jihadists — first has to contend with a domestic hurdle by way of the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Scott Charbo, the deputy undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, is scheduled to testify today on Capitol Hill about the Bush administration’s much-awaited cyber-security initiative.

Mr. Charbo, the department’s former chief information officer, was promoted to the job earlier this month. Less than 24 hours later, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, fired off an angry letter to Mr. Charbo’s boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Mr. Charbo was guilty of “an incredible and unacceptable dereliction of duty” while in charge of the department’s information technology systems, Mr. Thompson wrote to Mr. Chertoff.

The letter noted a series of intrusions into departmental networks, some of which exported data to Internet addresses in China, in 2006 while Mr. Charbo was chief information officer. Mr. Thompson said Mr. Charbo took a “laissez-faire attitude” to the intrusions.

“The bottom line is that they are promoting someone to head this new initiative who can’t do his job,” said Thompson spokeswoman Dena Graziano.

Mr. Charbo would not comment on Mr. Thompson’s charges.

Other officials expressed concern that Mr. Thompson’s vehemence about the promotion could overshadow the committee’s oversight of cyber-security initiatives. The chairman wrote to Mr. Chertoff that it was “unfathomable” that he should put Mr. Charbo in charge of the policy.

Mr. Charbo’s defenders say he is the victim of a personalized campaign on Capitol Hill and that the breaches are no more serious than those at other federal departments and agencies.

“The scale was comparable to that [experienced by] other U.S. government departments and agencies,” said former Homeland Security preparedness chief George Foresman. “They wouldn’t have been unusual for private sector either.

“These kinds of intrusions happen every day,” Mr. Foresman said. “They weren’t catastrophic. … I never saw any reports that critical classified networks were compromised.”

Mr. Charbo will be responsible for implementing the classified cyber-security initiative that Mr. Bush signed into law last month.

Much of the initiative remains secret, but one unclassified component is the Einstein program, which aims to provide “real-time situational awareness” of federal networks, allowing officials to act immediately against hacking or other attempts to compromise security.

Officials said Einstein is the key to keep hackers, especially those thought to be working for the Chinese government, from accessing federal computer systems.

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