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Hacking the Bad Guys
Comments () | Published February 1, 2010

These were chilling stories regardless of who recounted them. But the President went a step further and admitted that the most dire warnings of the nation’s cyberdefenders were already coming to pass. “We know that cyberintruders have probed our electrical grid and that in other countries cyberattacks have plunged entire cities into darkness,” Obama said. A moment later, he acknowledged that cyberspies had also broken into secret US military networks.

“This cyberthreat is one of the most serious economic and national-security challenges we face as a nation,” Obama declared. “From now on, our digital infrastructure—the networks and computers we depend on every day—will be treated as they should be: as a strategic national asset.”

In December, Obama tapped Howard Schmidt, a former chief security officer at Microsoft, as his cyberczar; Schmidt had also been an adviser to George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the government moved with new vigor to secure its own sensitive networks. The comprehensive plan that McConnell had helped launch in 2007 saw his old agency, NSA, take point in protecting military and intelligence agency networks. The Department of Homeland Security, which holds the legal responsibility for protecting civilian computer systems, would receive “technical assistance” from NSA—a polite way of saying that most of the expertise to actually perform the department’s mission would come from the country’s largest intelligence agency.

Today there’s little doubt that the federal bureaucracy has found a new center of gravity for the cyberthreat. The President’s strategy is predicated on one fact: The military and the intelligence community employ the most and best cyberexperts required to fight a war on the Internet. And the government does view the problem as a war. Obama said as much when he called cyberthreats “a matter of public safety and national security. We count on computer networks to deliver our oil and gas, our power and our water. We rely on them for public transportation and air-traffic control. . . . Our technological advantage is a key to America’s military dominance. ”

Obama grasped the facts that had menaced his predecessors, but he has gone further than any of them by describing the threat so vividly and by not hiding its true nature and scope. The President of the United States had stood before the nation and said, yes, I’ve been hacked. We’ve been hacked. This problem is real. And it is dangerous. And you can blame me if we don’t fix it.

It’s a reality of Washington that a powerful idea can take a generation to materialize. John Poindexter might not have hoped that his plans for defending the Internet would sit untapped for so long, but he wouldn’t be surprised. He has long adhered to a view of how real change happens in Washington. People, not policies or technology, are the most intransigent forces. Until they come around, there’s no meaningful progress.

Poindexter, now 73, remains a quiet and vital force in national-security circles. He keeps a small home office in the modest two-story colonial in Rockville that he’s occupied since his days at the White House. The room is adorned with memorabilia of an official life in the Navy, and one wall of an adjoining family room is covered by photographs of him and Reagan in the Oval Office.

Poindexter has never truly left the scene. Some of Obama’s and Bush’s senior security advisers are longtime friends of the admiral. He moves in a rarefied environment occupied by the graybeards of American spycraft. He also sits on the board of directors of Saffron Technology, a start-up that builds high-end information-processing software for the military and intelligence community. In his off-hours, Poindexter tends to his sailboat, Bluebird, which he moors near Annapolis.

Meanwhile, McConnell, 66, has made securing cyberspace his professional and personal mission. After leaving the Bush administration last year, he returned to Booz Allen Hamilton, to the same corner office he occupied before coming back to government. From his private conference room, adorned with photos of him and President Bush, there’s a panoramic view of planes taking off and landing at Dulles Airport.

Cybersecurity has become de rigueur among national-security mavens in Washington, and it’s hard to attend any of the cyberevents hosted around town without seeing McConnell’s face or hearing his name invoked. Recently, the International Spy Museum installed a new cyberexhibit called “Weapons of Mass Disruption.” There’s McConnell, on a wall-mounted screen, explaining the threat to power grids and banks, just as he did for George W. Bush.

Poindexter and McConnell are human bookends in the Washington saga—one the idea man, the other the closer. What remains of the story now is largely beyond their control. Each man is an influencer, and McConnell has a personal stake in the outcome—his unit at Booz Allen is pursuing cybersecurity business. But both admirals have set sail into their twilights.

They seem to have a certain peace with that. As animated as they become about what’s left to be done, about the threats that remain, they’re shrouded in a kind of wisdom that accrues with age. It’s the air not of a man who knows he’s right but of one who knows he did all he could. Barack Obama inherits their story. And McConnell and Poindexter watch as the next chapter is written.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 02/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles