* DHS has trouble recruiting and retaining cyber talent
* Dept Homeland Security considers cyber reserve corps
* Reserve could be called upon in case of cyber crisis
By Jim Finkle
BOSTON, Oct 31 The U.S. Department of Homeland
Security is considering setting up a "Cyber Reserve" of computer
security experts who could be called upon in the event of a
crippling cyber attack.
The idea came from a task force the agency set up to address
what has long been a weak spot - recruiting and retaining
skilled cyber professionals who feel they can get better jobs
and earn higher salaries, in the private sector.
"The status quo is not acceptable," DHS Deputy Secretary
Jane Holl Lute told Reuters in a recent interview. "We are not
standing around. There is a lot to do in cyber security."
Lute said she hopes to have a working model for a Cyber
Reserve within a year, with the first members drawn from retired
government employees now working for private companies. The
reserve corps might later look to experts outside of government.
The United States has become increasingly vocal about the
need to beef up cyber defenses as Iranian hackers have
repeatedly attacked the nation's three biggest banks over the
past year, raising the stakes in a long-running battle to
protect private companies from digital attacks.
The detonation of a cyber "time bomb" at Saudi Arabia's
state-owned oil company in August caused unprecedented damage at
a private company, pulling 30,000 PCs out of service and raising
concerns that similar attacks could occur in the United States.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Oct. 11 that the
country faces a potential "cyber Pearl Harbor" and that foreign
groups have gained access to computer systems that control
critical U.S. infrastructure, such as chemical, electricity and
The Department of Homeland Security has had trouble
attracting and retaining top cyber talent since it was created
after 9/11 in a massive merger of 22 agencies in 2002. In its
early days, the DHS farmed out cyber work to contractors so it
could quickly get systems running to improve national security.
As a result, the agency tends to award the most coveted
cyber jobs to outside contractors. Those positions include
forensics investigators, posts on "flyaway teams" that probe
suspected cyber attacks and intelligence liaisons.
"It's not the money that makes people go to the contractors.
It's the cool jobs," said Alan Paller, co-chair of the DHS task
force. "People want the excitement."
The task force advised the DHS to give more exciting cyber
work to government workers to help with retention.
NSA VS DHS
Over the past decade, only 3 percent of students who won
scholarships through a prestigious government-funded program
known as CyberCorps have taken jobs with DHS. In contrast,
nearly a third chose the National Security Agency, according to
the task force.
Tony Sager, a task force member and former NSA senior
official, said the military intelligence agency has a strong
"brand" that opens doors for recruiters.
"DHS doesn't have that sense of 'Wow,'" he said. "There are
plenty of cool jobs at DHS. The job is identifying them."
The NSA has spent decades building cachet with university
students through on-campus programs and, more recently, with
children through cartoon puzzles on the Web. Once people join
the NSA, they typically stay for a long time, said Sager, who
retired this year after 34 years at the agency.
The DHS task force recommended it set up two-year cyber
programs at community colleges to train large numbers of people
and encourage military veterans to participate. Lute said the
first of those programs could start next year.
Jeff Moss, who co-chairs the task force, said the community
college programs would produce more graduates than needed, but
the question is how many of them would want to work for DHS.
"Hopefully we'll get our fair share," said Moss, who founded
the Def Con hacking convention 20 years ago during a summer
break before he started law school.
The DHS may need to boost salaries as well. One former
agency official who left government for a job with a private
company said that some staff quit DHS jobs, then were
immediately returned as employees for outside contractors.
"On Friday they are a government employee working making
$80,000 a year. On Monday they are a contractor at the same desk
and the government is paying them roughly $150,000," he said.