Cybersecurity: Curiouser and curiouser

Gibbs is an aficionado of Carrol's Alice and finds a curious parallel between the administration's cybersecurity office and believing six impossible things.

I am a huge fan of Lewis Carrol's "Alice" stories which are some of the greatest fantasies of all time (by the way, Disney is working on a movie based on the books that is directed by Tim Burton that looks fantastic and, with Burton directing, perhaps Disney won't "Hollywoodize" the story like it did with the 1951 cartoon).

Anyway, one of the many memorable scenes from Alice can be found in "Through the Looking Glass", Chapter V, "Wool and Water", wherein Alice is talking to the White Queen:

"There's no use trying," [Alice] said, "one ca'n't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

I bring this up because there was a time, just a few months ago, when many people believed in six impossible things about the proposed cybersecurity office of the Obama administration: 1) they believed it would actually be able to get beyond the talking about it phase; 2) they believed it was possible to get government agencies to allow another agency to drive their IT; 3) they believed an implementable cybersecurity strategy could be defined; 4) that such a plan could actually be put in place in a meaningful time frame; 5) that the funds necessary to implement this strategy could be found (we're talking hundreds or billions of dollars); and 6) that anyone who took the job could survive the politics without their head exploding from frustration.

In short, people believed in these six impossible things not before breakfast but before taking office. They even believed them for a while afterwards. But now, and I'm just guessing here, not so much.

Proving my point, last week, Melissa Hathaway, Obama's acting cybersecurity chief since February 2009, announced her resignation, claiming it was for "personal reasons."

Hathaway was actually an excellent candidate for the job, boasting an excellent and relevant resume. But really, what chance did she have? The issues of cybersecurity are hard for non-IT people in general and politicians in particular to understand, and the consequences of implementing a real strategy are a political nuclear bomb.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "People familiar with the matter said Ms. Hathaway has been 'spinning her wheels' [and that] the president's economic advisers sought to marginalize her politically […] after she said it should consider options for regulating some private-sector entities to ensure they secure their networks".

Can you imagine the political pressure from the financial community, law enforcement and the medical industry against having to comply with a whole new collection of IT-related regulations and having to undergo heavens knows what kind of audits? And I bet the pushback from commercial concerns was a walk in the park compared with the civil service in-fighting.

As Hathaway wrote in the White House "Briefing Room" blog on May 29, 2009: "Protecting cyberspace requires strong vision and leadership and will require changes in policy, technology, education, and perhaps law … We are late in addressing this critical national need and our response must be focused, aggressive, and well-resourced." These words seriously understated the scale of the problem and the scope of the challenges that faced her and will face her successor should anyone be crazy enough to attempt the job.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VI, "Pig and Pepper", the Cheshire Cat disappears starting with its tail leaving nothing but its smile and Alice comments: "...a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!"

Paraphrasing Alice we might say something along the lines of, "a White House office for cybersecurity without a head! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!"

Gibbs dances a quadrille in Ventura, Calif. Send your little Bill to backspin@gibbs.com.

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