Reporting from Washington — After months of delay, President Obama on Tuesday named a cyber-security coordinator to oversee the vast task of protecting the nation's computer systems in the public and private sectors.
Obama appointed Howard Schmidt, a former chief security executive at Microsoft with 31 years' experience in law enforcement and the military, to the crucial post of White House cyber-security "czar."
"Howard is one of the world's leading authorities on computer security," said John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, in a statement released -- fittingly -- by e-mail.
Schmidt will have what Brennan called "regular access" to the president as a key member of the White House national security staff. Schmidt will also work with White House economic experts "to ensure that our cyber-security efforts keep the nation secure and prosperous," Brennan said.
More than 10 months ago, Obama described protection of computer networks as an urgent priority for national security and promised to name a powerful chief advisor in that area. But the selection process ran into division and disarray that, critics said, have affected the government's cyber-security efforts. The administration has sparred with business interests over cyber-security policy and has grappled with bureaucratic infighting among the law enforcement and intelligence agencies involved.
The Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have had difficulty hiring and retaining top experts in the field, a problem that apparently slowed the selection of the White House czar.
In praising Tuesday's appointment, the chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), called on the administration to move faster to safeguard cyber-networks nationwide. Experts have cited threats posed by international organized crime, as well as hackers connected to the security forces and spy agencies of China and other nations. China denies it is trying to hack U.S. systems.
"I hope Mr. Schmidt's appointment leads to a renewed sense of urgency across the government to address this challenge," Lieberman said. "We need to develop without further delay a national strategy for safeguarding critical cyber-networks and a comprehensive plan that lays out the responsibilities of each federal agency and the private sector."
Schmidt has specialized in computer security and forensics as an investigator for the FBI, the Air Force and local law enforcement. He was vice chairman of a domestic security board and a special advisor to the White House under former President George W. Bush.
In the private sector, Schmidt held executive positions related to cyber-security at Microsoft and eBay and most recently served as president of a nonprofit information security consortium.
"In our digital world, the information technologies we depend upon every day present us with both great opportunity and great danger," Schmidt said in a videotaped statement posted on the White House website. He added: "When it comes to cyber-security, our vulnerability is shared."
Schmidt said the president had directed him to prioritize the development of a comprehensive national strategy and ensuring a unified response to future "cyber-incidents" endangering computer networks.