The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Confessions of a Cyber Czarist

Confessions of a Cyber Czarist

I have a confession: I - not President Obama - am to blame for all this czar talk.

Much is being made by some opponents of the Obama administration about the number of czars the president is appointing - some without the requirement of Senate confirmation - to coordinate policy for a number of key government programs. Among them: cybersecurity.

On more than one occasion I have used the term cybersecurity czar (sometimes with the word "czar" in quotation marks), in reference to either the cybersecurity coordinator Obama promised to name last May to manage cybersecurity policymaking among federal agencies or to the director of the would-be White House Office of Cyberspace, a more senior role proposed by some lawmakers and the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency.

Never, in any of my communications with the White House, has an administration official referred to the White House cybersecurity adviser as a czar. If anyone in the office is championing the idea that the cybersecurity adviser not be a czar, it's the president himself. Obama's comments on the position make the job sound very unczar-like, characterizing the role as a key official who would from time to time have his ear, yet report to two even-more senior counselors: the national security and economic advisers. Indeed, the unczar-like job description is seen as a major reason the job has not been filled in the nearly four months since Obama created it.

The talk about Obama creating a high-level cabal of czars without Senate confirmation has prompted some Republican lawmakers to call for legislation to bar payment from federal coffers the salaries of unconfirmed czars. Critics contend these unconfirmed czars perform a crucial role in implementing government policy. Curiously, they didn't voice these concerns when Republicans occupied the White House, a point made by White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, in a blog posted on the White House website last week:

"The bulk of the noise you hear began first with partisan commentators, suggesting that this is somehow a new and sinister development that threatens our democracy. This is, of course, ridiculous. Just to be clear, the job title 'czar' doesn't exist in the Obama administration. Many of the officials cited by conservative commentators have been confirmed by the Senate. Many hold policy jobs that have existed in previous administrations. And some hold jobs that involved coordinating the work of agencies on President Obama's key policy priorities: health insurance reform, energy and green jobs, and building a new foundation for long-lasting economic growth.

Why do I use the term czar? The answer isn't a sinister one Dunn alleges the administration opponents hold. The term has become journalistic shorthand for a senior administration policy adviser assigned a specific task. Czar is also a four letter word - literally, though some as we've seen are making it a figurative one as well - and it fits neatly in a headline. I try to create headlines that fit on single line, and the longer words "adviser" and "coordinator" might cause the line break I seek to avoid."

I apologize to the president if my use of czar has caused him some discomfort. But will my atonement result in the halt of the use of the word? I make no promise.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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