President Trump doesn’t yet have an official in place who is responsible for leading the nation’s cyberdefenses, according to his incoming undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
“It's difficult to address who that is,” Joseph Kernan told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Thursday. “I would say there's lots of activities going on, but it's not focused under one person that I'm aware of.”
That ambiguity frustrated lawmakers in both parties, following years of high-profile cyberattacks against private and government entities by adversarial regimes. Kernan, a former Navy SEAL admiral, couldn’t identify the point person for cyberdefenses even within the Defense Department.
“I think right now it's a collective responsibility,” he told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. “I certainly have a responsibility for cyber in the intelligence realm.”
Kernan forecast an eventual cross-government cyberdefense plan that would provide broader protections. “It's such a prolific and important issue to be addressed because it involves everybody in our country, not just civilian, not just military, our infrastructure, our networks, all those things have to be addressed,” he said. “So, I believe its going to be a whole of government approach to the cyber and we have to collaboratively work together, leverage technology to address the problem.”
That prognostication failed to reassure the panel. “Somebody has to be in charge,” committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., interjected.
Shaheen concurred. “Right now, we don't have someone who can be held accountable and who everyone knows is the person in charge if something goes wrong,” she said.
His difficulty with the question doesn’t represent any threat to his nomination, however. A third committee member emphasized that his answer wasn’t even “wrong,” but represents instead a gap in administration policy.
“We actually requested members of the White House to actually participate in one of our hearings here to discuss this specific issue and they declined to even attend,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “And that type of an attitude is the wrong attitude with regard to finding the appropriate way to respond to attacks and the defense of our country.”
Kernan agreed that the government needs a policy leader for the cyberdefenses. “I'm absolutely committed to that and I would second, coming from the military, there needs to be someone in charge to make it work,” he said.