As the number of White House “Czars” keeps on climbing, sometimes, a title is nothing more than a title.
Like the new “White House Cyber Czar,” who may have less security clearance than the cleaning crew of the Oval Office.
Earlier today, President Obama announced that he plans to create the position of a ‘cyber czar’ in the White House. No announcement about who will fill this position has been made yet, however. During his speech about this topic earlier today, Obama stressed that the focus of this new position will be to deal with cyber threats, but that the White House also plans a new education campaign to raise awareness about cyber security and digital literacy.
It should be noted that while ‘czar’ might sound like an impressive title, in terms of the White House hierarchy, this new position will only be that of a “special assistant to the President,” and whoever will fill this position will not have direct access to the President and have very little authority and even less authority over budgets.
According to Obama, whose announcement was not related to a similar announcement many are expecting from the Pentagon about the creation of a new “cyberspace war command,” the Internet should be “open and free,” though we are not sure if he was wading into the dark, muddy pool of net neutrality here.
Actually, Obama likely was wading into the muddy pool of net neutrality. Here’s hoping his support of that crackpot idea is another broken campaign promise.
Being a “Special Assistant to the President” or “SAP” is about akin to being a store manager at K-Mart who once in a while gets to meet the corporate CEO. This “Cyber Czar” will rarely if ever be in any meetings with the President, and it must be said, will likely only meet Obama on his first day on the job, and then any White House functions like some of the various holiday office parties.
As a former “Special Assistant” myself, I saw my boss every day. “My boss” consisted of a General Deputy Assistant Secretary as well as an Assistant Secretary inside of the Housing Department. The two of them oversaw an organization inside the agency and answered directly to the Deputy Secretary and Secretary of HUD. I was lucky enough to run into Housing Secretary Jackson maybe four times total during the time both of us were there before he resigned last April.
I had a much closer relationship with Housing Secretary Preston. Most of that was because Preston was a more open guy when it came to his subordinates than Jackson, but also he had Wisconsin ties (Janesville) so we’d occasionally talk about the Packers and other things. But such a relationship between a Special and the President inside the White House is highly unlikely.
The new “White House Cyber Czar,” or this poor SAP, will answer to a much higher-level staffer at the White House. Former Director of the National Economic Council, Keith Hennessey wrote something similar about how the White House staff is typically broken up.
White House staff can be divided into two groups: commissioned officers, and everyone else. As a technical matter, a commissioned officer works for the President, and everyone else in the White House works for a commissioned officer. There are three levels of commissioned officers. Starting with the most senior, they are:
- Assistant to the President (AP)
- Deputy Assistant to the President (DAP), aka “Deputies”
- Special Assistant to the President (SAP), aka “Specials” or “SAPs”
The Deputies and Specials also technically report to the President, and they get their commissions from the President (”Special Assistant to the President“). They report to him through an AP, however. As an example, every item on the President’s schedule had a “project officer” who was an AP that was formally responsible for that segment of the President’s day. As a practical matter, the Deputies and Specials did much of the spade work to make that time segment successful, with the AP overseeing the process and working on strategic issues.
That pretty much describes my time at HUD. As a “Special” there, I’d do much of the grunt work which became memos, charts, and reports which would go up the food chain and then maybe if need be, reach the HUD Secretary. It’s how the system is set up and works in the Executive Branch’s senior levels of management.
And now you know.
Any real cyber warfare is going to take place at the same place it has for years: The Pentagon, likely under the watch of the Air Force.