Hurd gets plum role in Congress
San Antonio Express - By Bill Lambrecht, Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — If Will Hurd sounds excited about what lies in front of him in Congress, there’s reason.
House Republicans handed Hurd, R-San Antonio, a prize after he captured a seat for the GOP, and it’s an assignment in line with his résumé: chairmanship of a new House Oversight subcommittee that will delve into information technology, hacking and just about anything involving computers.
Given the high profile of computer security in Congress, Hurd, a former CIA operative and more recently a cybersecurity expert in business, may need to navigate turf battles among House members eager for a piece of one of the sexiest issues on Capitol Hill.
But Hurd isn’t even the only Texas freshman to win such a plum assignment: John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, was recently named chairman of a Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity.
Then there’s the matter of how long Hurd will be around. His predominately Latino border district has changed hands three times in as many elections, and the 23d District electorate in the 2016 presidential election could well be more Democrat-friendly than last November.
For now, Hurd, 37, is situated in a seemingly ideal position, one that could even let him share credit if the GOP-led Congress and the Obama administration iron out differences over cybersecurity legislation.
He also can look after local interests. San Antonio is a major and growing cybersecurity center — it has one of the largest National Security Agency operations outside of Fort Meade, Maryland, and the Air Force Cyber Command is here.
Hurd’s job came about in part because of the interests of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the new chairman of the powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The panel has been the scene of many combative hearings, with glowering Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the former chairman, grilling Obama administration officials on a host of matters.
Chaffetz, according to aides, has a keen interest in technology — as well as running a less-partisan committee. He set up the Subcommittee on Information Technology and turned to Hurd, whose experience and affability fills the bill.
“It’s unusual for a freshman to get a subcommittee, but this plays to his strength, which is how he got it,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, a veteran San Antonio Republican and chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Climate for action
The massive hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in November hardened resolve to pass legislation that increases the flow of threat information between the government and industries. And Congress has taken note of more intrusions since.
Security company Cylance Inc. reported in December that Iran-sponsored hackers had breached the U.S. Marine Corps intranet, along with airline, energy and defense industry networks. In January, hackers sympathetic to the Islamic State infiltrated social media accounts of the U.S. Central Command, triggering outrage in Congress.
Members of Congress themselves are falling prey to Internet fraudsters. In a House Science subcommittee last week, two first-term members told how they recently were victims.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said his wife had phoned him during freshman orientation to say that someone was running up charges in Texas on a family credit card. Newhouse told colleagues that he hadn’t traveled to Texas for years.
Then Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., related how, during the Christmas holidays, an identity thief had purchased $7,000 worth of cosmetics on her credit card and had the cache of beauty aids shipped to California. She noted her relief at getting those charges removed.
Plenty to do
Budget hawks in Congress have wondered what the government is getting for all the money spent on computers. From 2006 to 2013, the government spent a staggering $588.2 billion on information technology — computers and equipment to store and transmit data — including nearly $75 billion to protect systems, according to Office of Management and Budget records.
Stories about duplication and purchases of outmoded equipment are common in the federal government, among problems that Hurd said he wants to “shine a flashlight on.”
For instance, why do some federal agencies have separate, private computing clouds located within their firewall and under their control when it could be more efficient to use a public cloud? Hurd asked.
“There are so many issues that the biggest thing is, how do we narrow our focus and talk about what is the most important,” Hurd said.
He said he intends to look at how agencies share — and don’t share — information. Close to home, Customs and Border Protection and Customs and Immigration don’t share like they should even though they’re both part of Homeland Security, he said.
Hurd also would like to focus on online gaming and vulnerabilities in wireless networks that support medical devices, he said.
Hurd’s knowledge in the computer realm is such that he can write code in at least one general purpose programming language. He gained some of his expertise as a covert operative in the CIA, conducting what he describes vaguely as offensive cyberoperations against countries hostile to the United States.
More recently, he worked with companies in the business of protecting against intrusions.
“I know what the attackers look like. I know what they’re doing,” he said. “Ten, 15 years ago, you worried about Russian organized crime trying to steal your credit card information. Now, you have bad actors trying to destroy. The days of just having a firewall and anti-virus, those days are over because of the sophistication of the hackers.”
The expanding threat could work to break the logjam around legislation to spur more cooperation between the government and companies, bills that have languished amid concerns about transferring more personal information to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The Obama administration recently offered concessions that include more liability protection and limits on the types of data that companies would report after a breach.
Hurd said he sees the administration overtures as positive. “We can protect ourselves from threats in the digital world and protect our civil liberties at the same time,” he said.
If a meaningful cyberbill passes, it wouldn’t be surprising for Hurd to share in the credit. Besides holding a swing district, he has the distinction of being one of just two African-Americans among 246 House Republicans.
Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP strategist and former Capitol Hill aide, asserted that Hurd is probably among the five most vulnerable House Republicans because of the makeup of his district.
“The net impact is that the (Republican) majority will give him the opportunity to have a much higher profile. But he’ll have to be hard-working for the next two years and not just in Congress, but raising money and working his district,” Mackowiak said.
Hurd appears set to embrace what has come his way.
“People are giving me the opportunity to lead. They recognize my background, and they recognize I have some ideas on how to push some of these things forward. And I’m getting the support to do that and the freedom to do that. So that’s exciting.”