President Obama’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity meets Monday in Washington to hear evidence about changes to the structure of government that might help the U.S. better respond to stopping foreign hackers, organized online criminals and digital spies.
But much of what they will hear is deficient, because it lacks a vision of global leadership.
The U.S. should set itself a goal — as it did with President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot — to be the nation with the world’s most secure digital infrastructure.
The U.S should be the place whose citizens are the safest online; whose banks are the most sound and best protected from online criminals; whose industry sets the world’s standard for trusted engineering and supply chains; where public information is known to be accurate and free from tampering; and the nation best able to manage its presence in cyberspace in a manner that accords with and helps spread its values and traditions.
If we are to engage with international partners on this issue, as President Barack Obama has said, we should do so as the global leader, primus inter pares — first among equals — on the world stage.
There are gifted people working today within the administration that have been charged with the development of cybersecurity policy and plans. Their priorities — protecting critical infrastructure, identifying and reporting cyber incidents, engaging with international partners, securing federal networks, and building a cyber workforce — are the right ones. They have labored long and loyally and no one doubts their commitment or abilities.
But the commission was not established because they have succeeded.
It is part of the complexity of cybersecurity that it is a cross-cutting issue — implicating a wide variety of institutional stakeholders. The need to examine strategic choices at the highest level presupposes that the president has access to advisers unfettered by existing organizational equities.
Such choices should be weighed and presented to the president and their cabinet in a manner that allows for — indeed, encourages — development and discussion of concepts that look to a variety of future scenarios, and provides access to the widest possible range of contributors both within and outside government.
We have done this before — global leadership in important endeavors is nothing new to the U.S. We have models that have served us in the past, ones that move beyond policy to grand strategy. If they are updated, they would serve today’s needs.
Perhaps the best known model is the creation of advisory commissions to serve the president regarding issues of national importance.
Such commissions need to be led by people of true national standing, whose presence reflects the gravity of the issues they address, whose participation attracts the efforts of other eminent people and, more important the attention of the nation’s president and the cabinet.
Prior to the Second World War, Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Carnegie Institution, met with the President in 1940, proposing to him establishment of the National Defense Research Committee “to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare.”
The Committee helped establish the underpinning of efforts to create a national commitment to the development of nuclear power, including its use during the Second World War. Harvard University President James Conant, MIT President Karl Compton, and other eminent scientific and business leaders joined Bush in his work on what became a national science research strategy.
America’s leadership in the industries resulting from this effort gave our nation global influence and we became the world’s undisputed leader in the exploitation of nuclear technology.
America’s leadership in aeronautics and astronautics benefited from a similar approach. The Special Committee on Space Technology was established in 1957 and charged with developing a strategy to coordinate government, industry, and academia to build a national space program. The Committee was led initially by MIT’s Guyford Stever, appointed subsequently as President of Carnegie Mellon University.
The establishment a year later of NASA, was in large part the result of a memorandum provided then-President Eisenhower by another national scientific leader, MIT’s James Killian, who chaired the President’s Science Advisory Committee.
Such an approach complements existing staff responsibilities, but is clearly far broader. Ideas presented to the president should reflect the critical judgement of the committee’s leadership, and result from vigorous debate.
Such advisory groups drive the development of national strategies. Perhaps as important, they keep the spotlight focused in the White House on issues that deserve national attention, highlighting problems that need to be solved and opportunities that can be seized.
Presidential advisory committees exist today. Some monitor important developments and advise the President regarding courses of action that might be taken. The groups described above went further, sowing the seeds of what became national strategies (for nuclear energy, and aero- and astronautics), and paving the way for American global leadership in these fields.
These groups were comprised of people of singular standing, and of great vision. A National Cybersecurity Advisory Committee to the President could fill this role.
To achieve and sustain global cybersecurity leadership — to convert this challenge into an enduring national advantage — will take the same kind of vision from which our nation has benefited in the past, and on which it should count in future.
This vision can only come from the unfettered advice of the nation’s leading minds — with access to the president. A National Cybersecurity Advisory Committee to the president would be a powerful resource in gaining this objective.
Samuel S. Visner is a former senior NSA official and now senior vice president and general manager for cybersecurity and resilience for ICF International. He is an adjunct professor of cybersecurity at Georgetown University and member of of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, where he serves currently as co-chair of the Alliance’s Cyber R&D Task Force.