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The Revolving Door at DHS Continues

Forget about the Abbott and Costello comedy act about "who's on first?" (in the spirit of the beginning of the baseball playoffs). The more comical routine in Washington, D.C., these days (among the many to choose from) is the question of "who's in charge of cybersecurity at DHS?" Actually, it is not a very funny topic because it concerns a very serious matter. Amit Yoran, director of the National Cyber Security Division, is the latest in a series of departures of individuals who were at the helm of our national strategy.

There has been much speculation in the media as to whether or not Yoran was frustrated by his lack of authority and placement three layers below Secretary Tom Ridge. Although I don't disagree with recent Congressional proposals to elevate the importance of cybersecurity (and I am sure that Yoran would have appreciated the promotion), I think there are other reasons behind his sudden departure. I was with Yoran at a National Press Club event on Thursday morning where he was announcing DHS's support of National Cyber Security Awareness Month and had a hallway conversation with him where he was very engaged regarding cybersecurity training and education. My last words to Yoran were "See you this afternoon" in reference to his scheduled testimony before a Senate committee regarding the security of Internet root servers. When he unexpectedly did not appear at the hearing and an aide was forced to read his written testimony, the news of his "abrupt resignation without notice" on the next day took on new significance for me. While I have theories as to what might have went wrong in those final hours/minutes, I will not speculate here.

Most importantly is the question of what does this mean for higher education? Arguably, DHS and their various programs and initiatives will have little impact - for good or bad - on colleges and universities across the United States. Of course, there is SEVIS, foreign student VISA's, and constraints on security-related research that impact faculty and students. Nonetheless, Yoran's departure from DHS is very unfortunate in many respects. First, Yoran had an affection for higher education that I experienced first-hand. I first met Amit, a few week prior to him beginning his new role at DHS, where he was giving a guest lecture to a group of students at Georgetown University where his wife is also an adjunct faculty member. He also had many close advisors from academia. Second, he had a unique appreciation for the role that higher education played in the cybersecurity of America - as a source of future leaders through our core mission of teaching and learning, as a basic source of much of our new knowledge and subsequent technologies as a result of research and discovery, and as operators of some of the world’s largest collections of computers and high-speed networks. He provided similar remarks at the EDUCAUSE Policy Conference this past Spring. Finally, in the pursuit of public-private partnerships, he consistently included EDUCAUSE, the Security Task Force, and other higher ed partners in both the strategic discussions as well as tactical efforts to implement the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. While it is certainly possible for his successor to do the same, it is unfortunate that we will potentially have to begin anew the process of informing, educating, and possibly convincing the national cybersecurity leadership of the important role that higher education plays in this public policy space.

I wish Amit Yoran well. He will land on his feet and we are all the better for his leadership this past year. Despite his polite remarks in press accounts that I have read, there are serious systemic problems that remain. The good news is that we've become accustomed to the "revolving door" - now at DHS and previously in the White House when cybersecurity was headquartered in the Executive Office. So, we will stay the course and do our best to keep the new leadership honest and forge a partnership that will hopefully be as productive as what we experienced under former cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke, Howard Schmidt, and most recently Amit Yoran.

For some press accounts of Yoran's sudden departure, see:

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