Senate confirms Navy, NSA veteran Coker as national cyber director

by Tommy Grant

The Senate confirmed the government’s second-ever national cyber director on Tuesday, filling a far-reaching leadership position that will shape how agencies move forward collectively on pressing artificial intelligence and cybersecurity policies.

Lawmakers voted 59-40 to confirm Harry Coker, Jr., a 20-year Navy veteran and previous third-in-command at the National Security Agency, to head the Office of the National Cyber Director.

Recently, Coker has been an operating partner at C5 Capital, a London-based firm that funds businesses in the cybersecurity, energy security and space industries, according to a biography by the Potomac Officers Club. He’s also served as an adviser at Primis Principiis, an outside director at JSI and is a senior fellow at the McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security at Auburn University.

“Harry Coker is an accomplished leader and dedicated public servant who is well-qualified to lead this importance office,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said on the Senate floor Dec. 12

Coker’s confirmation fills a 10-month vacancy that was left after the inaugural national director, Chris Inglis, stepped down in February. Kemba Walden had taken over as acting director of the office but was ultimately not nominated for the position.

ONCD has a major role to play in overseeing progress of the Biden administration’s National Cybersecurity Strategy implementation plan, unveiled in July, and in shaping budget proposals in line with these initiatives. Coker will also have a seat on the White House’s AI Council.

At his nomination hearings this fall, Coker stressed not only the importance of partnering with industry to ward against increasingly complex cyber threats, but of looking inward at how the government is recruiting the next generation of IT talent to lead and sustain these efforts.

It’s a well-known statistic by now that just 7% of permanent full-time federal employees are under the age of 30. To help expand the workforce underpinning the Biden administration’s cyber strategies, Coker said the government should extend its recruiting efforts beyond traditional four-year colleges and urban areas to diversify the pool of candidates.

ONCD is just one of several federal bodies that have influence over the federal government’s IT and cybersecurity posture, especially as Congress and the White House have made it clear that every agency, tech-oriented or not, has a responsibility to modernize its digital defenses.

This year alone, a slew of major policies were published to set deadlines and expectations for progress in these areas, including pending guidance from the Office of Management and Budget on AI.

Role for industry

Meanwhile, the technology itself marches on, and cyber attacks increasingly endanger public infrastructure and small and mid-size businesses, as well as large entities and the federal government.

“The quality of the cybercriminals has come up to the level that I used to only see from state actors four or five years ago,” said Alex Stamos, chief trust officer of Sentinel One during a Committee on Homeland Security hearing on Tuesday.

As industry fights these threats on the front lines, Coker said partnerships with it is essential. He’s acknowledged that while his office may have a leading role to play, “solutions cannot be about any one entity – or even just the federal government.”

“I’ve been in situations where that partnership wasn’t a true partnership. Where it was more one way: ‘tell me what you got, tell me what you know, and I’ll see you later,” he said during a Nov. 2 hearing. “That cannot — that will not — be effective in cybersecurity.”

Cybersecurity may also find an intersection with AI tools that can process mounds of data quickly and produce actionable intelligence to decision makers, Coker testified.

Twenty agencies have identified more than 1,000 AI use cases, or specific challenges or opportunities that AI could solve, according to an a report published Dec. 12 by the Government Accountability Office.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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