Critical Infrastructure Security , Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

Trump Fires Christopher Krebs, Head of CISA

Move Was Widely Anticipated as Trump Continues Staff Reshuffling
Trump Fires Christopher Krebs, Head of CISA
CISA Director Christopher Krebs at the RSA 2020 conference in San Francisco. (Photo: Mathew J. Schwartz/ISMG)

President Donald Trump has fired Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency. Experts say that thanks in no small part to CISA, this year's elections proceeded without experiencing any major cybersecurity incidents.

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The firing was widely anticipated, even by Krebs himself, as Trump’s administration has pushed forward with a staff reshuffling in what appear to be the final two months of the president's tenure. In the past weeks, two senior officials at DHS have apparently been forced to resign, and Trump has replaced his defense secretary (see Senior DHS Officials, One in Cybersecurity, Resign).

Trump, who has not conceded the Nov. 3 election to President-elect Joe Biden, has continued to allege that widespread voting fraud caused him to fall behind in key states he needed to reach a majority in the Electoral College. His lawyers have filed lawsuits disputing vote counts in states including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan.

Two Democratic members of the House of Representatives, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi and Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, have condemned Trump’s firing of Krebs, saying it “makes America less safe.” Thompson is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Underwood is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Innovation.

"The fact is that, since Election Day, President Trump has sought to delegitimize the election results by engaging in a disinformation campaign that could shatter public confidence in our elections for generations,” they say. “Director Krebs put national security ahead of politics and refused to use his position to do the president's bidding, so the president fired him.”

Praise for Krebs has also come from Republicans. In a statement, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina says that under Krebs’ leadership, CISA drew up an “creative and innovative campaign” to promote cybersecurity.

“Chris Krebs is a dedicated public servant who has done a remarkable job during a challenging time,” Burr says. “Chris and his team at CISA have worked diligently to strengthen our election infrastructure, helping to shore up vulnerabilities and build trust between state and federal governments.”

Late Tuesday, Krebs didn’t directly address his firing, but tweeted from his personal account that he was "honored to serve."

Trump: Krebs Made False Statements

In announcing Krebs’ firing on Twitter, Trump reiterated claims that there had been widespread voting fraud, which U.S. election officials have repeatedly said are false. He also claimed that Krebs' recent statements on the security of the election were inaccurate.

Election officials nationwide have reported minor software and tabulation errors, which are common in elections, but said there were no incidents of any significant scale. On Thursday, the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council, of which CISA is a member, issued a joint statement asserting that the Nov. 3 election “was the most secure in American history.”

The statement adds: "There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised."

One key initiative CISA undertook before the election was to devote a section of its website to Rumor Control. Therein, CISA refuted major misinformation themes circulating on social media, assuring voters that the integrity of the election was intact and pointing people to reputable sources for election results.

Who might replace Krebs isn't immediately clear. CISA’s deputy director is Matthew Travis, who was previously deputy under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which became CISA in November 2018 after Trump signed legislation, begun during the Obama administration, that created the new agency.

On Thursday morning, Krebs publicly congratulated his agency for its two years of service. CISA is charged with protecting government computer networks and advising the private sector on emerging cybersecurity threats.

Krebs noted the success of CISA’s #Protect2020 initiative, which sought to shore up local government computer networks involved in election infrastructure. Efforts included ensuring that state voter registration databases were secure and not vulnerable to tampering.

The agency’s work also centered on the COVID-19 pandemic. CISA’s remit includes protecting healthcare organizations and vaccine research.

Experts Rally Around Krebs

Rumors of Krebs’ firing last week drew widespread condemnation from cybersecurity experts, who praised his work with the agency and warned that the continued spread of misinformation around voting posed a risk to U.S. democracy.

After Trump's tweet announcing his firing, Robert M. Lee, CEO of infrastructure cybersecurity firm Dragos, tweeted: “Hey @CISAKrebs we all love you man. Thanks for standing up for what you believed in at a time that it was most important to do so. Fired by tweet should be added to your resume, you’ve got a giant community of support from now on.”

Others have emphasized too how he helped increase the U.S. government's focus on public cybersecurity. "Whatever comes next for you, know that your legacy will stand," tweeted bug bounty pioneer Katie Moussouris (@k8em0), CEO of Luta Security.

“You should be proud of the job you and your team did, and your leadership through unprecedented challenges to democracy,” she writes. “History will remember you well.”

'This Is the Way'

One measure of the impact of CISA under Krebs' leadership has been the wider public attention paid to election security this year and the kudos being given to the agency for helping to safeguard it.

Such plaudits have come from a variety of public figures, including "Star Wars" star Mark Hamill, to which Krebs seized the opportunity to emphasize the importance of election security using not only a quote from Yoda, but also the creed espoused by the title character in the television series "The Mandalorian."

Securing Elections

The firing of Krebs comes as there has been growing alarm among cybersecurity experts over how partisan politics is affecting the perceived integrity of the voting process, which in recent decades has typically been an uneventful, democratic exercise.

On Monday, a group of computer security experts, academics and former diplomats co-signed an open letter on election security, which was published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The letter says there have been great strides to make software-based voting systems more robust, and ensure that problems are found and corrected. But it says the effort can only succeed if partisan politics are kept firmly apart from cybersecurity essentials.

“Bottom line: election security officials and computer security experts must be able to do their jobs without fear of retribution for finding and publicly stating the truth about the security and integrity of the election,” the letter says.

The experts write that they are “profoundly disturbed” by reports that Krebs may have been under pressure to change CISA’s evaluation of the Nov. 3 election security integrity.

Krebs' Life Post-CISA

So what's next for Krebs? As yet that's unclear, but in an update to his Twitter bio following his firing, Krebs references spending time with his family, watching sports for his alma mater - the University of Virginia - as well as firing up his Big Green Egg ceramic BBQ.

"Used to be the 1st director @CISAgov," his bio now reads. "Now I’m going to reintroduce myself to my family, fire up the BGE, watch @UVa sports, and ride bikes."

Executive Editor Mathew Schwartz contributed to this story.

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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