U.S. spy agency may get more cybersecurity duties

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The spy agency that ran the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program may get more responsibility for securing U.S. computer networks, President Barack Obama’s intelligence chief told Congress on Wednesday.

Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair said the National Security Agency, which is responsible for codebreaking and electronic spying, should assume a greater role in cybersecurity because of its technological prowess and current role in detecting attacks.

“There are some wizards out there ... who can do stuff. I think that capability should be harnessed and built on,” Blair said in testimony to the House of Representatives intelligence committee.

Blair acknowledged that many Americans distrust the agency, which operated former President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless electronic spying on some Americans’ overseas phone calls.

“The NSA is both intelligence and military, two strikes out in terms of the way some Americans think about a body that ought to be protecting their privacy and civil liberties,” Blair said.

Government concern over computer network vulnerability has risen as computer hackers become more sophisticated.

“A number of nations, including Russia and China, can disrupt elements of the U.S. information infrastructure,” Blair said. “Cyber-defense is not a one-time fix; it requires a continual investment.”

Billions of dollars are at stake. Defense contractors Northrop Grumman Corp, Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co are working on classified cybersecurity projects for the U.S. government.

Software and telecommunications companies also are likely to play a major role, said Democratic Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, whose Maryland district includes the NSA.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama ordered a 60-day cybersecurity review and named Melissa Hathaway, the top cyber official with the intelligence director’s office, to a White House post overseeing the effort.

Some lawmakers have said the Homeland Security Department, which plays a leading role in U.S. computer security and is in charge of protecting federal civilian networks, is not up to the job.

Blair said he agreed: “The National Security Agency has the greatest repository of cyber talent.”

“They’re the ones who know best about what’s coming back at us, and it is defenses against those sorts of things that we need to be able to build into wider and wider circles.”