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NSA Director: Agency Not Interested In Running U.S. Cybersecurity

Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander tells security industry audience the National Security Agency wants to act as technical support in a "team" effort
SAN FRANCISCO -- RSA CONFERENCE 2009 -- It turns out the National Security Agency (NSA) doesn't want to be in charge of the U.S.'s cybersecurity operations after all: NSA's director told attendees here today that the agency sees itself as part of a team that includes the Department of Homeland Security and the security industry.

Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, who is also chief of the Central Security Service, said he wanted to set the record straight that it won't be just the NSA or DHS that will oversee the nation's cybersecurity efforts. Speculation and concerns about privacy had been running high during the past few weeks amid reports that the NSA was lobbying to head cybersecurity. Adding fuel to that fire: In February Dennis Blair, director of National Intelligence, told a House intelligence committee that the NSA should have a wider role in cybersecurity.

"We don't want to run cybersecurity for the U.S. government. That's a big job," Alexander said in his keynote address at the RSA Conference. "We need to have a partnership with others. DHS has a big role in it.

"It's one network, and we all have to work together," including the security industry, he added. "We'll provide the technical support they can lean on."

Alexander went public with the NSA's position just a day before Melissa Hathaway, a former Bush administration official who President Obama has charged with conducting a 60-day review of the country's cybersecurity posture, will deliver a keynote here, as well. Hathaway's review was delivered to Obama late last week, and she is expected to outline some of the issues here tomorrow.

NSA's Alexander touted the NSA's security talent in cryptomathematicians, and emphasized its expertise in securing the .mil and intelligence networks. He also alluded to "mistakes" the agency has made, but that it "self-reports" and corrects them, and is under several layers of oversight, including Congress and the administration. It's not "security or civil liberties," he said. "We have to endeavor to do both equally."

The nation needs an early warning system for attacks that includes its allies, he said. "We should work together to provide this," he said. "We have to build situational awareness."

But Alexander admitted it won't be easy from NSA's perspective as an agency that must preserve some of the secrets it gathers. "How do we protect secrets and work to secure the network as a team? That's what we've got to learn to do," he said. "The bottom line is the security industry has a tough job. We are there to work with you as a team."

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