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Senior federal officials are voicing concern that the partial shutdown of federal operations and the furlough of thousands of cybersecurity and intelligence specialists are an open invitation to hackers to exploit security vulnerabilities.
Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel says he fears the reduced number of cybersecurity professionals on active duty across federal agencies gives hackers greater opportunities to move about within agency IT networks and heightens the risks agencies already face that their systems could be compromised.
"If I was a wrongdoer looking for an opportunity, I'd contemplate poking at infrastructure when there are fewer people looking at it," VanRoekel said in remarks to the The Wall Street Journal.
[ For more on how the federal government shutdown is affecting national security, see Government Shutdown Stalls Cybersecurity Legislation. ]
VanRoekel explained that while government shutdown plans exempt workers critical to national security, cybersecurity teams had been reduced to a skeleton crew. If agencies came under cyberattack specialists could be called in, but the loss of real-time response was a real concern, he told the Journal. "I have fewer eyes out there," he added.
VanRoekel, who oversees but has limited direct control over the $82 billion agencies spend on IT and cybersecurity annually, said he isn't able to assess what portion of the government's cybersecurity or IT workers overall have been furloughed. The decision of which employees have been exempted from the current shutdown is made on an agency-by-agency basis.
"The people I would have do that assessment are currently not working," he said, noting one of the many consequences of the government shutdown and its impact on the White House Office of Management and Budget, where VanRoekel works.
Meanwhile, director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. warned senators Wednesday that the government shutdown, coming on the heels of this year's sequestration cuts, will "further damage our ability to protect the safety and security of this nation and its citizens." Clapper made the remarks during testimony at a previously scheduled hearing on domestic surveillance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked intelligence leaders to address the effects of the shutdown.
"I've been in the intelligence business for about 50 years. I've never seen anything like this," Clapper told the senators, according to Roll Call. Clapper said 70% of the intelligence community's employees had been deemed non-essential to their agencies' missions and subject to furloughs.
"Our nation needs people like this, and the way we treat them is to tell them, 'You need to go home because we can't afford to pay you,'" National Security agency director Gen. Keith B. Alexander told the lawmaker. "From my perspective, it has had a huge impact on morale." Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), noting that this is the first government shutdown since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said the comments of Clapper and Alexander "scared the hell out of all of us," according to Roll Call's account.
"The government shutdown in a post-9/11 world is making this nation less safe," Graham said.