Beckstrom Q&A: Cybersecurity official explains how he was hamstrung by NSA

rodabeckstrom_crop_edited1The sudden resignation  of Rod A. Beckstrom, the Department of Homeland Security’s senior  official tasked with unifying the federal government’s cybersecurity intiatives, bodes ill for a new age of transparency and collaborative problem-solving in government. Beckstrom was unable to maneuver around, much less partner with, the powerful National Security Agency (NSA).

In this stunningly frank March 5th resignation letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, Beckstrom, Director of the National Cybersecurity Center (NCSC) cites funding roadblocks and smothering controls imposed by the super-secret NSA.

“NSA effectively controls DHS cyber efforts through detailees, technology insertions, and the proposed move of NPPD and the NCSC to a Fort Meade NSA facility,” he writes. “NSA currently dominates most national cyber efforts…I believe this is a bad strategy on multiple grounds.

“The intelligence culture is very different than a network operations or a security culture. In addition, the threats to our democratic processes are significant if all top level government network security and monitoring are handled by any one organization. During my term as we have been unwilling to subjugate the NCSC underneath the NSA. Instead, we advocated a model where there is a credible civilian government cybersecurity capability which interfaces with, but is not controlled by, the NSA.”

Bush legacy

Phil Lieberman, founder and CEO of Lieberman Software, a user account management software vendor, has over 30 years in the security industry. He says there has been a complete void of any government  policies  laying out who has primary responsibilities for mitigating cyber threats against  the private and public sectors. Lieberman opines that this is because the Bush administration for the past eight years has focused primarily on preserving the lucrative intellectual property rights of large tech and media companies.

“This is absolutely a legacy of the Bush administration,” says Lieberman. “It has to do with the federal government supporting large corporations and large trade groups,  such as MPAA and RIAA, and other intellectual property owners  ahead of the rights of citizens, and ahead of the security needs of the United States.”

Lieberman maintains that Bush “essentially sold out the United States with regard to cyber policies. He effectively protected the intellectual property owners, but did nothing to effectively protect the citizens.”

Interestingly, Beckstrom is actually a Bush appointee. I happened to meet and spend some time with  Rod  last fall when we were both speakers at an I3P tech security workshop at the University of Virginia. In addition to being a riveting public speaker, Beckstrom has been a successful CEO and is co-author of a best-selling business book advocating decentralized management. He was asked by former Director of National Intelligence Mike Connell and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chernoff to leave the private sector to create the NCSC, at a time when  Bush was being heavily criticized for letting Homeland Security deteriorate into a rudderless agency. At one point, Beckstrom was being touted as a darkhorse candidate to be named cyber czar by President Obama.

Starfish eaten by spider

Beckstrom took his first government job anticipating that he would be able to introduce tenets from his book — The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,  to big government.  Beckstrom tried to grow a starfish, but got eaten alive  by a spider.

In a phone interview today,  he emphasized that he knew what he was getting into. He also said, that while he was hamstrung by the NSA, he received great support from the military branches and the FBI. Excerpts from Last Watchdog’s interview with Beckstrom:

LW: What happened?

Beckstrom: I knew before I came that this was not a simple environment  to come into, where everyone would be dancing around the maypole happily. But I decided that I wanted to do it. I was asked to do it by  DNI  McConnell and  DHS Secretary Michael Chernoff, with support from other top level members in government.  I said I would do my best. And I have done my best.

The reality is we don’t have the funding, we don’t have the space. And we don’t feel the top level support for what were doing; it just doesn’t make sense to continue. I think, candidly, the economy is an enormous issue and distraction for much of this very capable, talented (Obama) team. And otherwise my letter speaks for itself.

LW: How much of this comes down to the complete lack of any sort of formal or even informal U.S. cyber security policy? It’s impossible to tell, for instance, where military and intelligence concerns begin and end, and where protecting consumers and businesses begins and ends.

Beckstrom: Yes cybersecurity is an n-dimensional problem. There are no clean boundaries. This (government) adds an additional set of complexity. We have a government with different roles defined for each of the players and entities, and the cyberworld doesn’t respect any of those boundaries. Clearly there are different, significant players in government who aspire to have different roles.

LW: In your resignation letter, you make the case for  shared civilian, military and intelligence oversight.

Beckstrom: Information is power. This ability to manage cybersecurity is an extremely powerful and important mandate. I fully support NSA’s role in the intelligence community and with respect to the Department of Defense. As a public servant, and as a citizen, I just have a view that there should be a balance of power.

There should be different parties that have strength in this game. And I really feel independence for the NCSC is important as a collaboration and bridging function. I shared my own opinions, because I felt strongly about the issue and I wanted to share that with the people that I work for.

LW: I wonder if similar power struggles are taking place in other branches of the Obama administration?

Beckstrom: None that come to mind. I’d like to point out that DOD overall has been extremely supportive of us; and also the FBI, whom I forgot to mention, has been an excellent partner to us.

LW: What’s next for you?

Beckstrom: I haven’t made any decisions. I plan to get back to Palo Alto and be with my family, whom I miss tremendously. I’m going to make sure I take time to reflect on where I can best serve and do something I’m excited about.

But I really am passionate about cybersecurity now; I just think this is one of the most amazing problems we face, it’s a really beautiful n-dimensional problem set. So I’m very excited about probably being a part of the community in some fashion going forward.

–Byron Acohido

Photo of Rod A. Beckstrom