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Space Forum Bans Press from Cybersecurity Panels

Organizers of the nation’s biggest space conference have banned reporters and other members of the press from attending any of the event’s panels on cybersecurity.

The 31st annual Space Symposium, scheduled to take place next week in Colorado Springs, on April 13 will feature a series of panels on the topic, which has gained prominence as groups in China, Russia and elsewhere have launched damaging cyberattacks on U.S. companies and agencies.

Indeed, Russian hackers recently broke into sensitive parts of the White House computer system and stole information about President Obama’s schedule and phone calls, CNN reported.

Conference organizers on Tuesday e-mailed a “friendly reminder” to participants that the so-called Cyber 1.5 sessions “will be classified this year, and closed to media, including, but not limited to: reporters, photographers, editors, bloggers.” Another daylong session on space set for April 15 and some meals and meetings were also shuttered to the press.

Only attendees with U.S. citizenship and a top secret and sensitive compartmented information, or SCI, security clearance will be allowed to attend the classified panels.

“Unfortunately from a media standpoint, the decision made internally to turn cyber into a classified-level event means that there are no cyber panels open to the media,” Kevin Cook, vice president of marketing and communications for the Space Foundation, which organizes the event, said in a telephone interview. “The entire thing is under the classified umbrella.”

The decision, he said, “revolved around a desire of a lot of people who were on the panels the last couple of years to talk about the field and get further into the weeds, if you will -- less about policy and more into execution.”

While the cyber panels will be closed to reporters, the agenda for the daylong session is public and posted on the event’s website. Scheduled speakers include at least one congressman, military generals and industry officials.

Notable names include U.S. Rep.  James Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma who sits on the armed services and science, space and technology committees; Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command; Maj. Gen. Stephen Denker, who oversees the command’s cyberspace operations; Maj. Gen. Craig Olson, who’s in charge of the service’s intelligence and network programs; and Kristina Harrington, director of signals intelligence at the National Reconnaissance Office.

“The decision to close the session is, of course, regrettable,” Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., wrote in an e-mail.

“Secrecy has its place when it comes to technical and operational details of cyber activities, but those are not likely to be disclosed at this meeting,” he wrote. “Instead, the discussion will address ‘hot-button’ issues and other policy topics which are by definition newsworthy and of interest to the concerned public.”

Mieke Eoyang, director of the national security program at the Third Way, a public policy group in Washington, D.C., and a former Democratic staffer on the House Intelligence Committee, pointed out that the congressman -- as a member of the armed services panel, not intelligence -- likely has limited access to highly classified material.

“It's weird that the panel with the member of congress would be classified because members of Congress, unless they’re on the intelligence committees, do not regularly receive highly classified information,” she said in a telephone interview. “They may be getting secret or top secret information, but it’s not obvious that they’re going to get the compartmented information.”

Even so, Eoyang noted that other organizations, such as the Association of Old Crows, an international electronic warfare group, close events to reporters. The practice also regularly occurs on Capitol Hill, when lawmakers on intelligence committees move into a closed session to discuss information that, if made public, could pose a risk to national security, she said.

“Is there over-classification? Yes,” she said. “But I think part of it goes to the question of how to shift back and forth between classified and unclassified discussions.” For a hypothetical example, government and intelligence officials may want to share with contractors a specific algorithm or type of technology they’re using to identify Chinese espionage units trying to break into their systems, she said.

“It’s a challenge,” Eoyang said. “There are definitely things that we talked about that I don’t want out there in the general public because then the bad guys find out about it.”

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