By Suzanne Kelly
President Barack Obama is considering whether to issue an executive order to fill a gap in the country's cybersecurity defenses after Congress failed to move forward cybersecurity legislation last week.
Homeland Security adviser John Brennan said failure to pass legislation that would grant the government more authority in heading off cyber intrusions and attacks, has left a gap that the executive branch is working to fill on an interagency basis, using the resources of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and the FBI.
"Executive Orders are a good vehicle to actually direct the departments and agencies to do some certain things to make sure that the nation is protected," Brennan said during a question and answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "We can't wait, so we're doing things, DHS in conjunction with NSA, FBI, others are working to make sure that we are able to better safeguard our environment but also be able to respond but also be able to be resilient."
The Senate bill was considered by many to be a very basic effort to provide a structural security framework for business, in particular for companies that control the country's critical infrastructure, things like the electric grid, water filtration facilities and air traffic control systems. A compromise version of the bill made compliance with basic security measures voluntary.
Brennan said a top priority for the administration is making sure that if hackers or "bad guys" as he put it, are able to take down some part of the nation's critical infrastructure that the government would be able to recover quickly.
"Believe me, the critical infrastructure of this country is under threat and the technology - whether it be foreign states or cyberhackers and others - they are developing advance technologies and we have to improve our defenses on this issue," said Brennan.
Government agencies are seeing cyberintrusions focused on gathering information, data, sometimes trade secrets, but he worries about what comes next, particularly when it comes to safeguarding the country's critical infrastructure, he said.
"The next step is again the disruptive, disabling, disruptive types of attacks and so electric grids, water treatment facilities, mass transportation systems, railways and trains," said Brennan.
"If those intruders get into those systems and then can determine how they can in fact interfere in the command and control systems of these systems, they can do things, they can put trains onto the same tracks, they can bring down electric grid."