SAN FRANCISCO — US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Wednesday that the Pentagon understands it is lagging behind the commercial sector when it comes to best practices for protecting its data.

"We do grade ourselves and we're not getting good grades across the enterprise," Carter told reporters Wednesday. "I have these meetings where i call everyone in and we have these metrics which tell us how we're doing [and] if you don't score well, that is evident to the Secretary of Defense at those meetings.

"We don't assume for a minute that we're doing a perfect job at this," he added. "That's the whole reason for me to be here and the whole reason for me to be engaging with this community here at this conference."

Carter's comments came during a visit to the annual RSA data security conference, held in downtown San Francisco, where he took part in a question and answer session with Ted Schlein of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley.

Schlein praised Carter for his outreach to the tech community over the last year, including the standup of the Defense Initiative Unit Experimental (DIUX) which acts as a transmitter of ideas from the Valley back to DC. He also highlighted two initiatives announced this morning – bringing on Google executive Eric Schmidt to head a new advisory panel on innovation and launching a "bug bounty" to encourage friendly hackers to find vulnerabilities in Pentagon websites – as "so cool."

But, Schlein pointed out, the Obama administration is up in January, which will likely coincide with the end of Carter's term as Secretary of Defense. And while Carter has made the Silicon outreach a priority, another secretary may not.

Carter, however, said he was "very confident" that what he has set up will continue, for two reasons. First, the idea of leaning to the tech sector to help with high-end innovations makes sense for the department. And second, the work that is underway involves the hiring and placement of a number of people – people who will be there even as secretaries change over.

The secretary also said that while he could eventually see US Cyber Command spinning off to have more independence than its current setup, the department is "not on that road right now." He also said CYBERCOM will stay jointed with the National Security Agency for the near future, in large part because there are not "enough food people to put them in different batches."

In addition, Carter also reiterated concerns that the current case between Apple and the FBI could create bad precedent, noting he supports strong encryption rules. His comments that he is "not a believer in back doors" drew applause from the audiance.

Carter ended his comments with a call for action to the crowd, asking them to reach out and get more involved with the department in the future.

"We are you. You pay us. We represent you and our job is to protect you, and we'd love to have your help," Carter said.

Defense News is traveling with Carter during a West Coast swing, where he is meeting with leaders from the tech sector to discuss how to bring innovation into the Pentagon.


Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.