DoD, DHS Team Up to Strengthen Cyber Defenses

Photo: Cherie A. Thurlby

The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have teamed up in an effort to strengthen cybersecurity for military and civilian computer networks and systems.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday released a new memorandum of agreement on cybersecurity, which was created to coordinate and improve efforts to secure the nation’s critical digital infrastructure.

“With this memorandum of agreement, effective immediately, we are building a new framework between our departments to enhance operational coordination and joint program planning,” the secretaries  said in a joint statement. “It formalizes processes in which we work together to protect our nation’s cyber networks and critical infrastructure, and increases the clarity and focus of our respective roles and responsibilities.”

Under the agreement, DoD and DHS cyber analysts will work to support the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center. The agreement also provides a full-time senior DHS leader to the National Security Agency, as well as a support team made up of DHS privacy, civil liberties and legal staff.

“This structure is designed to put the full weight of our combined capabilities and expertise behind every action taken to protect our vital cyber networks, without altering the authorities or oversight of our separate but complementary missions,” Gates and Napolitano said in their statement.

By better leveraging important technologies and personnel to serve DoD and DHS’ missions, the departments will be able to boost economy and efficiency, they added. The memorandum of agreement also “furthers our strong commitment to protecting civil liberties and privacy,” Napolitano and Gates wrote.

In yesterday’s phone briefing for reporters, a senior DHS official said the agreement is the “next logical step” in cybersecurity efforts and has several important effects.

“We expect it to enhance joint planning and increase visibility between DoD’s and DHS’s operational processes and increase each agency’s effectiveness,” the official said. “For example, we would hope that this would drive more rapid collaboration under the National Cyber Incident Response Plan.”

In the same briefing, a senior DoD official said one of DoD’s key missions is to provide defense support to civilian authorities during attacks on the homeland, whether they entail natural disasters, weapons of mass destruction, or cyber assaults.

“So from our perspective supporting DHS on cybersecurity is part of DoD’s mission and this [agreement] is intended to help DOD and [the National Security Agency] in particular to be able to do that more effectively,” the official added.

By executive order, NSA acts as the national manager for National Security Systems and in that capacity, it reports to the secretary of defense and to the director of national intelligence.

“We’re not talking about new missions or new authorities; we’re looking to help our departments be able to do their jobs better,” the senior DoD official said. “The U.S. just happens to have a tremendous amount of expertise at NSA. Our perspective is that it will be a lot faster and more cost effective to make sure NSA is supporting DHS as effectively as possible than to expect DHS to try to build all the capabilities NSA has. As a country, we don’t have the time or the money to try to buy all of the capabilities twice.”

DoD needs DHS to succeed in the cybersecurity mission, the senior DoD official said, from transporting troops and material to wars overseas to supporting defense of the nation.

“We rely as a department not just on the dot mil — our own networks — but on a secure dot gov and dot com to work with our partners,” he added. “It may seem ironic in today’s connected world, and especially for cybersecurity, that we’re suggesting it’s critical to have people work together on a daily basis, face-to-face. But that’s the reality of how people work and from a DoD perspective we understand that this arrangement will help DHS compete more effectively for support from NSA.”

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