Obama to Seek $95 Million to Harden Defenses Against Hackers

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President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 21, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  • Bolstering of security clearance system follows OPM breach
  • White House replaces agency that oversaw background checks

President Barack Obama will ask Congress for $95 million in his fiscal 2017 budget to harden defenses against computer hacks like last year’s theft of government personnel records for about 20 million people, officials said on Friday.

The Obama administration also announced it would create a new agency to oversee security clearances for government workers and contractors. Last year’s hack included information used for background investigations.

“You can never reach 100 percent, but we will be striving to reduce the risk to as low a level as we can,” Michael Daniel, the National Security Council’s cybersecurity coordinator, told reporters on a conference call.

The Defense Department will oversee security for the new clearance system, which is administered by the Office of Personnel Management. OPM is hiring 400 new investigators to reduce a backlog in security clearance applications, the agency’s acting director, Beth Cobert, said on the call.

Cobert replaced Katherine Archuleta, who resigned as OPM chief last July after the hacking, first discovered in April, was disclosed. 

Urging Reforms

Representative Jason Chaffetz, whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a series of hearings on the breach and who led calls for Archuleta’s resignation, said in a statement that the administration’s action must do more to protect sensitive personal information in government databases.

“Simply creating a new government entity doesn’t solve the problem,” the Utah Republican said. “Today’s announcement seems aimed only at solving a perception problem rather than tackling the reforms needed to fix a broken security clearance process.”

Tony Scott, U.S. chief information officer, said on the conference call the work on the information systems will begin using money already in OPM’s budget. He declined to give details on the additional money in the budget request for fiscal year 2017 that Obama plans to send Congress on Feb. 9.

U.S. officials have linked the OPM breach to hackers linked to the Chinese government. China has repeatedly denied the government had any role. While the Obama administration hasn’t publicly blamed China, the president has pressed Chinese leaders to crack down on cybercrime. U.S. and Chinese officials held two days of talks last month on hacking, and Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement in September that their governments would refrain from economic espionage by hacking private computer networks.

China’s state-run news agency Xinhua said in December that an investigation determined that the hacking of the OPM was a criminal case as opposed to a government-sponsored attack and that several people had been arrested.

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