Should the NSA Take the Lead for U.S. Cybersecurity?

By Matthew Harwood

As President Barack Obama's 60-day review of U.S. cybersecurity nears its end, the debate over whether the National Security Agency (NSA) should be the lead agency protecting government networks gets attention from The New York Times today.

The gist is this: Can the American people trust the NSA, which has tremendous cyberexpertise, to protect government networks without violating American civil liberties?

Rod Beckstrom, who used to head the Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Center but resigned in early March over NSA mission creep into DHS territory, told the Times he doesn't believe so.

[T]he N.S.A.’s push for a greater role in guarding the government’s computer systems could give it the power to collect and analyze every e-mail message, text message and Google search conducted by every employee in every federal agency.

Mr. Beckstrom said he believed that an intelligence service that is supposed to focus on foreign targets should not be given so much control over the flow of information within the United States government. To detect threats against the computer infrastructure — including hackers, viruses and intrusions by foreign agents and terrorists — cybersecurity guardians must have virtually unlimited access to networks. Mr. Beckstrom argues that those responsibilities should be divided among agencies.

“I have very serious concerns about the concentration of too much power in one agency,” he said. “Power over information is so important, and it is so difficult to monitor, that we need to have checks and balances.”

On Wednesday, the Times reported that the NSA had gone beyond its congressionally mandated authority and intercepted massive amounts of private e-mails and telephone calls of Americans. Lawmakers have vowed to investigate the matter. In a statement on Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that while the NSA has intercepted the wrong communications, the communications intercepted were small compared to the agency's entire collection efforts.


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