July 17, 2023

White House Cyber Director Told She Won’t Get Permanent Role Due To Personal Debts

Kemba Walden

Acting White House National Cyber Director Kemba Walden has been told she won’t be considered to serve the role permanently, due to personal debt issues, despite praises and recommendations from key lawmakers and her predecessor. 

Who is Kemba Walden?

Congress created the Office of the National Cyber Director in 2021 to advise the president on cybersecurity policy and strategy. Walden joined the office the following year and has acted as the national cyber director since February. 

In her role, she oversaw the rollout of the administration’s national cyber strategy and released its implementation plan last week.

She has also been at the head of developing the first National Cyber Workforce and Education strategy and, with the White House budget director, guided all federal agencies on aligning their 2025 cybersecurity spending with the cyber strategy’s priorities.

Prior to her role at the White House, Walden had worked as assistant general counsel in Microsoft’s digital crimes unit and had also worked as an attorney at the Department of Homeland Security.

Why wasn’t she nominated?

Despite her many accolades, on July 13, cybersecurity publication The Record reported that Walden would not be nominated for the permanent national cyber director position. 

Last week, Walden reportedly withdrew herself for consideration for the nomination. According to the Washington Post, the White House’s preferred choice is now Harry Coker, a Black former top official at the CIA and National Security Agency.

The White House declined to comment on the reasoning behind Walden’s departure or her potential replacement.

Walden was told that her personal debt issues would make her challenging to confirm.

She was told that her high debt load would create an opportunity for senators to “give her a rough time,” one person familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

When told the reason for not being considered, it stunned her friends and colleagues as they said she was eminently qualified for the job.

Walden lives with her husband, a lawyer at the Commerce Department, and her two young children in a private school. A family friend told The Washington Post that they have a mortgage like many middle-class Americans.

“They don’t have generational wealth. They’ve taken on debt to put their kids in private schools. And most importantly, they pay their bills,” said the friend.

“If the requirement to take a job like this is that you have to be independently wealthy, then it will be a poorer place because you’ll be cutting out a lot of great talent.”

Experts in presidential nominee vetting have said passing over a qualified candidate due to personal debt is unusual.

A lawyer who practices in the area said, “I’ve never heard of that one before.”

“If she’s paying the debt or hasn’t defaulted on it, I think it would be very unusual to be held up because of that.”

Support for Walden Persists 

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients praised Walden for demonstrating “excellent leadership” since taking on her role in February.

She also received endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus, Sen. Angus K and Rep. Mike Gallagher, and her predecessor Chris Inglis. 

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter in May, signed by 31 of his colleagues urging Biden to nominate her as they cited her experience and success as acting director.

Allison Green, a spokeswoman for Sen. Gary Peters, committee chairman for Senate Homeland Security, said, “Although she has withdrawn her name from consideration, he would support her if she changes her mind or is nominated for a future position.”

Sara Keenan

Tech Reporter at POCIT. Following her master's degree in journalism, Sara cultivated a deep passion for writing and driving positive change for Black and Brown individuals across all areas of life. This passion expanded to include the experiences of Black and Brown people in tech thanks to her internship experience as an editorial assistant at a tech startup.