Top cyber official expecting to be fired as White House frustrations hit agency protecting elections

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The U.S. government’s top cybersecurity official has told people that he expects the White House to fire him, three people familiar with the situation told POLITICO, as the Trump administration continues a purge of officials deemed disloyal to the president.

Chris Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, is in the White House’s crosshairs in part because of a website he created to debunk election-related misinformation — much of which President Donald Trump and other Republican Party leaders have embraced as they seek to undermine the legitimacy of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

In another sign of trouble for CISA, which has for years avoided the chaos of the Trump administration, another top agency official submitted his resignation on Thursday. Bryan Ware, the leader of CISA’s Cybersecurity Division, confirmed his departure to POLITICO but did not identify a reason. However, a U.S. official familiar with the matter told Reuters that the White House requested his resignation.

Krebs, one of the few Trump administration officials with widespread bipartisan support and admiration, has been expecting to be fired since just after Election Day, according to three people familiar with his thinking.

His agency has been at the forefront of federal efforts to protect U.S. elections from foreign hacking and interference, and his efforts have drawn praise from people in both parties. But Krebs has told people that he believes the White House is unhappy with his efforts to combat disinformation about voter fraud — claims that have primarily been coming from Trump and his allies. And that could make him the latest national security leader to lose his job amid a post-election purge that has already forced out Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Pentagon officials.

The White House and CISA did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Reuters first reported that Krebs has told associates he expects to be forced out.

Speculation about Krebs’ fate has heightened among people in tech and national security circles since a POLITICO story on Tuesday reported on his and CISA’s efforts to debunk the baseless voter-fraud allegations. Those include CISA’s Rumor Control website, which has knocked down rumors such an alleged flurry of votes by dead people, while Krebs has used his personal Twitter feed to dismiss allegations of vote-altering computers as "nonsense" and a "hoax."

A former senior U.S. official said that "several folks in the government" expected the POLITICO story to result in Krebs’ firing.

The Rumor Control page has not been the only point of friction between Krebs and the White House, according to a current U.S. official.

The White House’s personnel office "has wanted to fire Krebs for a while," said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "From what I’ve heard from the [White House], they’ve considered removing him before."

Now some people fear what will happen to the agency’s efforts if he departs.

“Chris Krebs is the Administration’s foremost civilian expert on cybersecurity and election integrity," said a former Trump transition official, who requested anonymity to offer a candid reaction. "He put his head down … and did the country a tremendous service with a laser-like focus on protecting America’s critical infrastructure, including election security. It’s a shame if some inexperienced staffers in the White House blinded by MAGA politics don’t see it that way."

Chris Painter, who served from 2011 to 2017 as the United States’ top cyber diplomat, told POLITICO that Krebs "has been a great leader of DHS’ cyber programs and has been particularly effective in fighting election interference."

"The threat of interference and disinformation continues after the election," Painter said. "Firing him now makes no sense and just makes our response weaker."

In a preelection interview with POLITICO, Krebs said he had not experienced any interference from the White House despite countering the Trump administration line on issues such as voter fraud and Russian election interference. “I have always felt that … we have been empowered and able to do our job” at CISA, Krebs said, “and I think we’ve been pretty damn successful at doing it.”

Krebs, who has led CISA and its predecessor DHS division since early 2017, had been planning to leave his position and return to the private sector shortly after Biden took office. But he had hoped to stay on in the short term to help the Biden transition team and see the new administration into its first few months, the people familiar with his thinking said.

They said Krebs had expressed a hope to people close to him that Ware might take over in the event he were forced out.

Matthew Travis, CISA’s deputy director, is a political appointee who is also subject to White House removal. Another person whose job may be in jeopardy is Matthew Masterson, CISA’s lead election security staffer. Masterson, whom state and local election officials widely credit with helping to build a robust election security partnership, is also a political appointee whom the White House can order fired if it chooses to do so.

Ware’s departure leaves Matt Hartman, a 10-year veteran of CISA and its DHS predecessor, as the acting No. 2 official in the agency’s cyber division. Hartman is a career civil servant who cannot be fired except with cause.

CyberScoop first reported Ware’s resignation.

CISA’s Cybersecurity Division focuses on protecting critical infrastructure from cyberattacks and defending federal civilian networks through monitoring, threat-hunting and vulnerability management services. It coordinates with the Infrastructure Security Division, which helps protect critical facilities such as power plants from physical threats, and with the National Risk Management Center, which houses CISA’s Election Security Initiative.

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