There’s almost universal agreement that the U.S. faces a catastrophic threat from cyber attacks by terrorists, hackers and spies. Washington policy makers just don’t seem able to do anything about it.
Even with the consensus about vulnerabilities in U.S. networks, and with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, Congress failed to pass cybersecurity legislation that was four years in the making and had sponsors from both parties.
The White House focused its efforts on a gridlocked Senate rather than on the Republican-controlled House, which had passed several less ambitious cybersecurity bills.
The report is the latest in a long string of alarms about the vulnerability of the nation’s Internet backbone, underscored by constant probes and attacks on government, banking and other computer networks. The next attack, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an Oct. 11 speech, could derail passenger trains, spill toxic chemicals or cause widespread blackouts.
The bill Lieberman and Collins introduced in February granted that authority to the Homeland Security Department, which handles civilian cybersecurity issues. The choice of DHS, already under fire for its airport-screening procedures, was an immediate target for Republicans.
Administration officials brought Senate staffers from both parties to the White House Situation Room for cybersecurity briefings in 2011. The goal, said an official familiar with the effort, was to create a sense of urgency in the room where the president had monitored the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The administration then called up the troops to make a last-ditch appeal to Republicans. Army General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, which helps guard the government’s computer networks, told lawmakers on July 30 that the U.S. had evidence that adversaries have penetrated civilian networks. He compared the moment to 1993, the year of the first World Trade Center bombing, which was a precursor to Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.