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US: New Obama 'czar' to thwart cyber spies, hackers

By Stephen Collinson
30 May 2009 4:29 AM

WASHINGTON, May 29 AFP - US president Barack Obama says he will name a White House "cyber czar" to deter and defend against mounting criminal, espionage and hacker attacks on US government and private computer networks.

"It is the great irony of our information age -- the very technologies that empower us to create and to build, also empower those who would seek to disrupt and destroy," Obama said at the White House on Friday.

"This cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.

"It's also clear that we're not as prepared as we should be, as a government or as a country," Obama said, adding his new coordinator for cyber security would become a key member of his national security staff.

The president's plan comes as gangs of cyber criminals, foreign intelligence services -- reportedly including China and Russia -- industrial spies and hackers increasingly prey on US networks, according to various studies.

There have been reported breaches of the US electricity grid and the F-35 fighter jet program, and Obama mentioned a cyber attack, blamed by some accounts on foreign intelligence services, on the computer hub for his own 2008 presidential campaign.

A US congressional panel warned in November lst year that China had developed a sophisticated cyber warfare program and stepped up its capacity to penetrate US computer networks to extract sensitive information.

"We can and we must do better," Obama said, unveiling a "top to bottom" review of US network infrastructure and its vulnerability to cyber crime.

The report, by Melissa Hathaway, a former Bush administration official serving as the interim White House cyber security adviser, makes a number of key recommendations.

It calls for the establishment of the cyber security post, a review of currently inadequate laws and policies and a bolstered federal state and local drive to protect cyber networks.

The report warns there is a need for the US government to plot a swift response strategy to significant cyber attacks.

"My administration will pursue a new comprehensive approach to securing America's digital infrastructure," Obama said, mentioning classified military networks, private commercial computer systems and the world wide web.

"Protecting this infrastructure will be a national security priority," he said. "We will deter, prevent, protect and defend against these attacks."

In an early reaction to Obama's comments, Cisco Systems vice-president and chief security officer John Stewart said the report was the "most focused and thorough discussion about the security of the nation's online infrastructure".

There were fresh signs meanwhile that the Pentagon was planning to create a new military command for cyberspace, to help the armed forces to conduct both offensive and defensive computer warfare.

A US defence official told AFP in April the administration was planning to create a new military command to counter cyber attacks on the country's sensitive computer networks.

The New York Times reported on Friday Obama was expected to sign a classified order in the coming weeks to create the cyber command.

The White House declined to comment on the reports.

The new cyber czar, who was not named on Friday, will be charged with overseeing how the government protects networks and will coordinate government agencies.

Among leading names mentioned for the post are Hathaway; Rod Beckstrom, former director of the National Cybersecurity Centre (NCSC) at the US Department of Homeland Security; and Paul Kurtz, former senior director for national security in the NSC's office of cyberspace security.

Cyber security was subject to fierce turf battles under the previous administration between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the super-secret electronic surveillance National Security Agency (NSA).