Cyber Solarium leader pushes to ensure continuity in national cyber director job

"The worst thing would be if we suffered a serious cyber attack, and this position was vacant."

A Senate committee has advanced the nominee to serve as the next national cyber director, and one senator says he’ll push to bring the nomination to a floor vote as soon as possible.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday voted to report the nomination of Harry Coker to the Senate floor. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who does not serve on the committee but helped create the national cyber director position as co-chairman of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, said he would be asking Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to hold a vote on Coker’s nomination as soon as the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, acting National Cyber Director Kemba Walden plans to step down on Friday, the White House confirmed. That means there will likely be at least a week where the position is vacant.

“This is a coordinating and a strategic position rather than an operational one, so I don’t think a pause of a week or so in the leadership is a problem,” King told reporters today. “If it goes much beyond a week or two, then I think there is a concern just because of the importance of the position in terms of coordination between the various agencies. And the worst thing would be if we suffered a serious cyber attack, and this position was vacant.”

The White House Office of the National Cyber Director was established in 2021 after Congress passed legislation creating the organization. The idea sprang from the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which sought to address, as King puts it, the “balkanization” of cybersecurity responsibilities across government through the new White House position.

At the top of Coker’s list, if he’s confirmed, would be implementing a new national cyber strategy released earlier this spring. The Biden administration also published a detailed implementation plan over the summer, laying out specific actions agencies will take in the coming months and years to put the strategy into practice.

King said implementation is “the hard part,” but said Coker’s experience in top positions at agencies like the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency will serve him well.

“I think that’s why Harry is particularly well suited to that task, because he has such extensive experience in several of the major agencies that are involved in this process [like] NSA, CIA, and so I think he’s the right guy for the next phase,” King said.

King also believes Coker could bring some continuity to the key White House position. Chris Inglis left the director role after less than two years, while Walden was in the acting position for nine months, as questions swirled around who exactly Biden would select to replace Inglis.

“From my discussions with Harry, he’s in it as a long term, consistent position,” King said. “I think we do need continuity and some consistency in the position. And I’m hoping Harry is the guy. I have no reason to think that he views this as a temporary assignment.”

During a confirmation hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, Coker said implementation of the strategy would be a major focus for him.

“As a former program manager in the government, I know it’s key to have cost, schedule and performance . . . if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Coker said, “And so ONCD to their credit, and to the partnerships credit, has done a masterful job in pulling the strategy and implementation plan together.”

He also backed the push behind the new National Cyber Workforce and Education Strategy to expand cybersecurity education, training and hiring. In addition to working with state and local schools, Coker suggested employers need to ditch degree requirements for at least some cybersecurity positions.

“We need to change the way we look at vacancy notices, job questionnaires,” Coker said. “In cyber, it should not be a requirement for everyone to have a four-year degree. You can get that cyber education without going through a four year college. And so again, we need to deliver that message broadly and deeply.”

While the hearing was largely non-contentious, only one Republican, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-K.Y.), joined committee Democrats in voting for Coker’s nomination when the panel met earlier this week.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fl.), a member of the committee, voted no on Coker’s nomination for multiple reasons, according to Scott’s communications director McKinley Lewis.

“The Biden administration has a proven history of using this agency to work closely with social media companies to censor free speech and views they didn’t agree with, and Senator Scott couldn’t support a nominee who would follow Biden’s agenda of censoring free speech,” Lewis said in a statement. “Senator Scott also has serious concerns about the nominee’s efforts during his time at the NSA to prioritize bias training over what’s best for the national security of the United States.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), meanwhile, voted with most Republicans on the committee against Coker’s nomination “because he lacked the clear vision and dynamic leadership needed for this important new office,” a spokeswoman for Romney told Federal News Network.

Several other senators who voted no on Coker’s nomination, including Ranking Member Rand Paul (R-Ky.), did not respond to a request for comment.

King said he has not heard of Scott’s allegations that the National Cyber Director’s office has been used to coordinate with social media companies. “I don’t know what the basis of that is,” King said.

But despite his push to get Coker’s nomination to a vote as soon as possible, King said he would not be surprised if it ran into issues in a divided Senate that is still grappling with a blanket hold on all Defense Department nominations.

“You could lose a lot of money betting on how things are going to go around here,” King said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were holds on the nomination. . . . I wouldn’t want to be the senator who was holding up a nomination for a position this important that could be even more important if there’s a major cyber attack in the interim.”

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