During his 30 years in Washington, Richard Clarke evolved from a State Department staffer into the nations top counterterrorism official. Along the way, he developed a reputation for knowing how to get things done and also became a polarizing figure in the inner circles of power inside the Beltway. He worked directly for three presidents in 11 years at the White House and was the driving force behind the development of the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. Hes now working as a consultant to ABC News and several security vendors. Senior Editor Dennis Fisher sat down with Clarke recently in Boston to talk about the state of security in the government and private sector and the development of the new national cyber-security center.
When you decided to leave the government, was that something that you planned for a while, or was there some proximate cause?
No, that was something I had planned for 20 years. I had just reached the 30-year mark. I had completed 30 years of government service.
The whole establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the way that was all set up, how much of a role did that play in your decision to leave?
I had been involved with the president and others in helping to create a department. We decided to take the cyber-security components of five different organizations and put them together. Then, when we did the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, we intentionally sort of made two and a half of the five priorities things that the new department would have to implement. So there was a plan in place for almost a year to move a lot of this function to the new department.
Whats your impression so far of how everythings going there and how the consolidation is working?
If you think about private-sector mergers, where two or three companies have to be put together, you understand that there is a normal period of adjustment. The Department of Homeland Security is trying to merge 22 organizations at the same time, so its that much more difficult. Theyre obviously having some growing pains.
Do you expect that to continue?
Yes. If you look at past federal departments coming into existence by merging federal organizations—the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy—it frequently took four to six years before the organizations thought of themselves as one department. We hope obviously that its going to go quicker, but the historical record is it takes a little time.
One of the big complaints I always hear from private-sector folks is that they dont know where to go when they find a new vulnerability or have some other problem. Will this help?
Some people in the past called the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the FBI, some people called the CERT [Coordination Center] or the FedCIRC, the federal version. The idea of putting all of these organizations together is to create a national cyber-security center, which I think they probably will announce early next month. That center will be the obvious place to call.
Thatll be for incident response, new vulnerabilities. …
Yes. The center will probably be more than just event response. Itll also be policy development, awareness, public outreach. It should be that thing that we de-scribed where the five cyber-components come together in one room. The key to making the center work is that the person chosen to head it be sufficiently high-level. They cant be buried in that department.
That seems like something that wouldve been a nice fit for you.
Ah, no. I had done 30 years of government service, 11 of that with the White House. No one had ever done 11 years continuous service at the White House before. Its kind of like a sentence of hard labor.
Were you surprised to see Howard Schmidt leave so soon after you left?
No. I think Howard did the right thing. By leaving, he sent a message to the administration and the Department of Homeland Security that they needed to move quickly to create the national center and they needed to have a person in charge of that with some real power. One of the reasons the administration is going to announce the creation of the center soon is because of that pressure that Howards departure engendered.