Team Maryland Builds ‘Fort Cyber’

By Tony Romm, Politico

BALTIMORE — Lawmakers call it “Fort Cyber,” a cluster of federal agencies and companies around the I-95 corridor that builds cyberweapons and researches new ways to fight foreign hackers.

And for that, Maryland can thank a congressional delegation — led by Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski — that long has steered hundreds of millions of dollars in federal cyberaid back home.

Maryland lawmakers have jockeyed for years to position their state as an epicenter for protecting the nation’s digital defenses. At Fort Meade, they’ve set up U.S. Cyber Command, the Pentagon’s coordination point for cyberoffense and defense. They’ve helped incentivize companies to set up shop nearby. And they’ve brought home big federal cybersecurity grants — including a recent $10 million check for a new cybercenter tasked to work with industry.

The lawmakers who have helped make Maryland a hub for cybersecurity say their efforts reflect the seriousness of the threat and fit the state perfectly because it’s already home to the National Security Agency and other military and intelligence centers.

“It’s building on what we already have,” Mikulski told POLITICO. “It wasn’t that Barbara Mikulski used appropriations à la Bob Byrd; we built on the assets that are already there and made sure they had the right appropriations resources.”

Still, there’s no denying that Maryland’s lawmakers have expended considerable political capital to transform their state into a home base primed and ready for any cyberwar. And it’s possible the cybersecurity reforms percolating in Washington — however necessary they may be — also could provide a huge business boost to the state.

“I think their biggest focus has been bringing attention to this area,” said Larry Letow, leader of the Tech Council of Maryland and the president and CEO of a local company, Convergence Technology Consulting. “The bottom line is we’re going through budget cuts; we don’t know what the future is going to hold.”

Letow said Mikulski and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger — another cyberchampion for the state — play a “strong role in the budget process.” The hope is they “will maintain the focus” on the issue, he said in an interview.

Make no mistake, the cybersecurity threat is no farce: Hackers have infiltrated U.S. government systems and routinely set their sights on the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. Companies around the world are equally appealing targets, as recent attacks against banks and other financial institutions have demonstrated.

To that end, members of Congress have proposed unprecedented investments in cybersecurity: The DHS hub managing a torrent of cyberprograms, for example, received more than $400 million in the 2012 fiscal year and is asking for more than $769 million for 2013. In fact, the only area to see a spending increase in the latest congressional stopgap measure was a pot of money to protect federal computer networks from cyberattacks.

That stream of funding is only going to flow faster if the government ever requires power plants, water systems and other forms of critical infrastructure to adhere to new cybersecurity standards. In doing so, the feds also hope to facilitate the exchange of threat data between the government and private sector.

Mikulski, along with other Senate Democrats and the White House, favors precisely that two-track approach. House lawmakers, including Ruppersberger, have opted to focus only on information sharing. As that debate continues, though, there’s a sense that Maryland may be in prime position to capitalize on any reforms that pass Congress or emerge from the White House — an advantage due largely to a congressional delegation that has wielded power and influence to boost the state’s appeal to the cyberindustry.

Take the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence — a new, highly prized center at which federal cyberexperts, tech companies and others intend to collaborate on new security innovations. It’s based in Gaithersburg, located at the headquarters of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The so-called NCCoE is just getting started in partnering with industry, after just having released a formal call to business. Its origin? A $10 million appropriation that Mikulski claims, quite publicly, she helped secure.

Boosting Mikulski’s case for the center is that its virtual neighbors are key defense, intelligence and research agencies, each of which houses critical missions to thwart digital attackers and spies.

But that, too, came about in part because of the state’s delegation: Mikulski, for one, argued most forcefully to bring U.S. Cyber Command headquarters to Maryland, a development she said would bring more than 21,000 jobs to the state. It’s now positioned not far from the headquarters of the National Security Agency — and both entities, notably, have the same director in Gen. Keith Alexander.

A previous base realignment also brought the Defense Information Systems Agency to the Fort Meade campus in 2011 — a development Mikulski, Ruppersberger and many other Maryland lawmakers at the time heralded as a boon to job growth while pledging to fund its operations in the coming years.

Those hubs alone are enough to draw a variety of contractors and others to the area, hoping to get in on lucrative federal cybersecurity contracts or at least cozy up with the leaders who seemingly would be on the front lines of a proverbial cyber war.

They “form the foundation,” explained Ursula Powidzki, assistant secretary of business and enterprise development for the state of Maryland, that’s “important in helping to create the conditions for the industry” to grow.

Federal dollars for science and technology education also have flooded into local Maryland schools. Ruppersberger, for example, has been an outspoken advocate for more cyberresearch and education spending, particularly in his home state. He tried for the 2011 fiscal year, for example, to secure more than $3 million for the development of an advanced cybersecurity research facility to be run by the University of Maryland.

“Watch out Silicon Valley, Maryland should be called the new Cyber Valley with all of the schools, government facilities and companies we have dedicated to cybersecurity,” said Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

“The technology produced within the federal government will eventually move to the marketplace for both large and small companies. We’re attracting hundreds of companies, and not just the big defense contractors, but dozens of startups,” he told POLITICO in a statement.

Even state leaders see a business opportunity. Flanked by Mikulski, Ruppersberger and others, Gov. Martin O’Malley took the stage at the so-called CyberMaryland 2012 conference in Baltimore in October to tout his state’s successes.

That conference began in 2011 at O’Malley’s urging. And the CyberMaryland group, backed by the state with the help of local companies, has been on something of a roadshow to attract new cyberbusinesses. State officials also have tried to incubate new cyberstartups through a venture capital fund focused more broadly on innovation.

Mikulski, meanwhile, shuttled cyberaid to the state many years before the reform debate captivated the Capitol. She helped steer new dollars to the cybersecurity research at NIST. She brought a key Navy cyberfleet to Fort Meade and a top defense research agency to the campus of the University of Maryland College Park. And she and her fellow lawmakers have helped grow cybereducation funding at other Maryland schools.

“We are the epicenter of cybersecurity in America. We are Fort Cyber,” the senator remarked in a speech at the CyberMaryland Conference last month before launching into a broader call for legislation.

“The battlefield is real,” she urged, “but the battleships are being built right in Maryland.”

Copyright 2012 Politico