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Excessive Secrecy Harms National Cyber Defenses, Report Says

The Senate Armed Services Committee believes the government's new National Cyber Security Initiative is too secret to have much value as deterrence.

The Senate Armed Services Committee believes the new National Cyber Security Initiative (NCSI) is too secret to have much value as deterrence.

In excerpts from the committee's report on the 2009 defense authorization act, published by Steven Aftergood on the Federation of American Scientists secrecy blog, the committee expresses concern about the secrecy surrounding the NCSI.

"These restrictions preclude public education, awareness, and debate about the policy and legal issues, real or imagined, that the initiative poses in the areas of privacy and civil liberties," the committee's report says. "Without such debate and awareness in such important and sensitive areas, it is likely that the initiative will make slow or modest progress. The committee strongly urges the administration to reconsider the necessity and wisdom of the blanket, indiscriminate classification levels established for the initiative."

At the RSA Conference in April, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff compared the government's attempt to improve national cyber security to the intensive effort of the Manhattan Project that brought the atomic bomb to fruition.

In January, President Bush signed an order that gave DHS and the National Security Agency greater power to oversee government computer security. Details about what the agencies are doing remain classified. One aspect of the plan, Chertoff said in April, was to reduce the number of network access points into federal agencies from about 1,000 to about 50.

While secrecy remains a cornerstone of computer security inside and outside the government, the Senate committee points out that the administration aims to "develop an information warfare deterrence strategy and declaratory doctrine, much as the superpowers did during the Cold War for nuclear conflict."

That being the case, the committee argues that potential enemies will not be scared away if there's no information available to suggest the presence of formidable defenses.

"It is difficult to conceive how the United States could promulgate a meaningful deterrence doctrine if every aspect of our capabilities and operational concepts is classified," the committee report says.

To highlight the difficulty of deterrence through secrecy, Aftergood in his blog cites Dr. Strangelove: "The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!"

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