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Ex-NSA executive considered for nomination as cyber director

The Biden administration is preparing to nominate retired U.S. Navy officer Harry Coker to be the next national cyber director, according to two people familiar with the matter, after a controversial decision not to tap the well-liked acting cyber chief Kemba Walden for the job permanently.

Coker, who’s also a former National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency official, is currently going through the pre-nomination vetting process, said one of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

If confirmed by the Senate, Coker would be the second person to officially hold the position created by Congress in 2020 to oversee the United States’ digital security agenda, including the protection of government computer networks and the regulation of vital private-sector systems.

After retiring from the Navy as a commander in 2000, Coker held senior roles at the CIA, including in its science and technology directorate, before serving as the NSA’s executive director—the spy agency’s third-ranking position—from 2017 to 2019. In 2020, he served on the national security staff of President Joe Biden’s transition team.

Coker is “well respected” and “very personable,” said a second person familiar with his impending nomination.

Frank Cilluffo, the director of the McCrary Institute, described Coker as “a veteran with a wealth of experience in the defense and intelligence community” who “has always worked well with the private sector.”

News of Coker’s selection, first reported by The Washington Post, emerged as the cybersecurity community was still reacting to the White House’s decision not to nominate its widely respected acting national cyber director, Kemba Walden, because of her substantial personal debts. Walden and her husband, a Commerce Department lawyer, have two children in private school.

Cybersecurity experts and former government officials have blasted the Biden administration for passing over Walden, a Black woman, for a relatively common financial issue.

“She is a public servant, as is her husband, so it should not be surprising that they are in this situation,” said the first person familiar with the nomination situation. This person noted that Walden’s acting position gives her full access to the White House grounds, suggesting that the U.S. Secret Service “is not concerned about this at all.”

Michael Morris, a spokesperson for the Office of the National Cyber Director, said that Walden “recently withdrew from consideration” for the nomination. “She intends to continue in the acting position and remains focused on making the digital ecosystem more secure, defensible, and aligned with our values,” Morris said.

Walden has garnered plaudits for her stewardship of the Biden administration’s cyber agenda since the February departure of inaugural national cyber director Chris Inglis. Inglis himself endorsed her, as did the Congressional Black Caucus. And she had won some rare bipartisan support, collecting further endorsements from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), the co-chairs of a congressionally chartered cybersecurity commission that helped create the cyber office. Multiple technology trade associations have praised Walden and her team for their work on a plan to implement Biden’s National Cybersecurity Strategy.

White House spokesperson Emilie Simons said Walden “has demonstrated strong leadership,” adding that administration officials “greatly appreciate” her “vision and service advancing national security, economic prosperity, and technological innovation.”

Simons declined to confirm Coker’s selection or explain why the White House believes that Walden’s debt would prevent her confirmation.

Coker’s confirmation would make him the latest in a series of Biden cyber appointees with military or intelligence community backgrounds, including Inglis, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former NSA deputy director. Bloomberg

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