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Cyber Age Spawns Complexity for Homeland Security Mission

May 1, 2014
By George I. Seffers
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Challenges extend beyond physical borders and manmade threats.

Dealing with the world’s increasing complexity is the primary challenge to keeping the homeland secure, according to Adm. Thad Allen, USCG, (Ret.), executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. He lists border security, the cyberthreat, information sharing, terrorism, criminal organizations and climate change as elements adding to that complexity.

“We have to start understanding that the root problem we’re trying to deal with is to defeat complexities that inhibit working across boundaries to deliver solutions,” he said while serving as the morning keynote speaker on the first day of the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference in Washington, D.C., in March.

Adm. Allen set the tone for the conference. Speakers and panelists conveyed that the U.S. government and the private sector have made dramatic progress in keeping the homeland secure since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Information is more easily shared among government agencies and the private sector. Network security is better understood. Technology advances at a dizzying pace. But for all the progress made, many challenges still remain, the experts agreed.

Adm. Allen related terrorism to “political criminality” and declared that transnational criminal organizations constitute the real problem. “I don’t make a distinction between counterterrorism and transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking. They’re all connected,” he stated.

Regarding border security, he said borders no longer are managed in a traditional sense and should not necessarily be equated to a physical border. “The fact of the matter is we have migrated to what I call functional borders,” he offered. A container leaving central Europe, for example, for Omaha, Nebraska, may never be opened and inspected, but it will be fully vetted, and the potential for threat thoroughly assessed.

Adm. Allen and others complained that simply defining critical terms is a complicated task. “There are as many definitions for border security as there are people who can say it,” he complained.

Other homeland security missions, such as cyberdefense, suffer from poor definitions, adding to the complexity. Tom Bailey, vice president for human resources, QinetiQ North America, posited that before any career path, including the cyber field, can be professionalized, it must be defined. “No one knows what cyber is,” Bailey lamented.

Others on the Professionalization of Cyber Security panel agreed that defining terms can be a challenge. Renee Forney, executive director of the Homeland Security Department’s CyberSkills Management Support Initiative, added that students often do not understand what cyber is. Instead, they understand job titles and specific functions, such as systems administration.

Stephanie Keith, who works cyberspace workforce initiatives within the Defense Department Chief Information Office, emphasized that point when she asked for a show of hands for all those working in information technology. Hands shot up across the room. When she asked for a show of hands for those involved in cyber, however, fewer people raised hands.

Tony Sager, director of programs, Council on CyberSecurity, reminded the audience of the different terms that preceded cyber, including communications security and information assurance. In another five years, he proposed, everyone may be discussing “cosmic security.”

Arguably the most compelling presentation came from Sandra Grimes, a former CIA officer and co-author of the book “Circle of Treason,” who discussed the complicated world of tracking down CIA mole Aldrich Ames. When Ames began selling secrets to the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, informants Grimes worked with began being rounded up and executed. Grimes and her colleagues suspected they had a traitor in their midst. It took years to track down the source of the leaks, and Ames was convicted in 1994.

Sometimes complexity occurs in the form of national calamities. Adm. Allen touched on that theme while discussing hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the complicated topic of climate change. But national tragedies often are manmade, and panelists discussing the role of fusion centers drove that home. They pointed out that following the infamous terrorist attacks, government agencies came under widespread criticism for failing to share information and connect the dots. By contrast, law enforcement agencies were almost universally praised following the Boston Marathon bombing and the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The fusion centers supported the reaction to both.

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