Obama's former cybersecurity tsar says military officers shouldn't take sides in politics

Greg Touhill visiting Sydney in November 2017. (Source: supplied)

A former data security chief who served under former US president Barack Obama has criticised other ex-military generals for “taking sides” in politics.

Retired brigadier general Greg Touhill served in the US Air Force for more than 20 years but came into the public spotlight last year on his appointment as president Obama’s first United States chief information security officer (US CISO), to manage the federal government’s cybersecurity strategy.

Touhill stepped down in January during the transition to the new Donald Trump administration, but he told Business Insider that he offered to stay — and the invitation was declined.

“I served at the pleasure of the president. And when the end of the administration came up, I did volunteer to stay on, but the transition team wasn’t sure how they wanted to organise and align their administration,” he said during a visit to Australia this month.

“They thanked me for my service, and I’m still in communication with them and I provide advice and counsel as a grey beard – no charge.”

Trump has commissioned help from a range of military officers both during his election campaign and within the White House. The current chief of staff is an ex-Marine Corp general, John Kelly; the secretary of defense James Mattis and chair of joint chiefs of staff Joseph Dunford are also former Marine generals; and security adviser H.R. McMaster is actually still in the US Army as a lieutenant general.

McMaster in February replaced a retired Army lieutenant general, Michael Flynn, who was a staunch supporter of Trump throughout his election campaign and even incited a “lock her up” chant in relation to Hillary Clinton at the Republican National Convention last year.

Touhill said that high-ranking military officers and former officers should not be taking sides in politics.

“Frankly I’m one of these guys who believes America’s generals and admirals should not be seen taking sides,” he said.

“We’ve got a mission to defend our country and our allies, and we’re part of a global neighbourhood.”

Cybersecurity requires a change in mindset

Global cybersecurity professional association ISACA, which Touhill is a member of, flew the former officer to Australia for a speaking tour. He has worked in information security in both the public and private sectors after his Air Force career.

Touhill said that classification and protection of data were “pretty easy” when they were recorded on paper, but a different mindset was required in the digital age.

“We now produce volumes of information on a daily basis. Some people posit that the world’s information quadruples every day, and frankly, storage is becoming cheaper,” he said.

“But with that volume of information, classification and asset valuation of information is difficult. And some people kind of forgot that information is valuable. One of the things I’m trying to remind folks that… we need to treat information as an asset.”

As for his former position as America’s top cybersecurity chief, Touhill is worried that the seat has been left vacant by the Trump administration for 10 months now.

“I strongly encourage them to move faster [in appointing someone],” he told Business Insider.

“But make sure you make the right call and get the person with the right skills and the right experience base. Because the federal government in the United States is large and complex. It has tremendous number of high-value information assets.”

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