By Suzanne Kelly
The guest list was impressive: assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan; Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stephanie O’Sullivan; Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey …
In all, 12 of the administration’s top officials met with senators in a classified meeting organized by the majority leader’s office late Wednesday afternoon to discuss the battle that has been raging in cyber space.
“There is an arms race in cyber space,” said Sen. Mark Udall, (D- Colorado). “It’s interesting two of the areas where we have seen the most advances and where our quality of life has really improved because of these advances, but we’re mostly vulnerable, are inter space which is cyberspace and outer space, which is where our satellites orbit the earth. They’re linked but they’re both opened to real threats going forward. We have the tools, the technology, if we have the willpower to meet those threats.”
The classified briefing followed testy exchanges on Tuesday during a World Wide Threats hearing before the Senate in which several Senators demanded to know why more wasn’t being done to protect U.S. infrastructure and commercial companies from cyber espionage and attack.
Among the House and Senate, there are dozens of bills in various stages of the legislative process, but no sense of one that would address every need, or has a chance of passing quickly enough to prevent future damage, despite the fact that Senators on both sides of the aisle say this is an issue with enormous bipartisan support.
“I hope that the briefing will give that same sense of urgency and the need for us to put aside turf battles and work together to all of the members of the senate,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “It’s very compelling to have so many members of the administration representing agencies from DHS, NSA, the White House, the FBI, all coming together and telling us it’s absolutely imperative that we act in this area.”
Lawmakers are now under increasing pressure to unleash the potential of agencies like the super secret National Security Agency, which former NSA Director General Mike Hayden has said already has the tools to do something about the problem. Now, he says, they just need the legal permission to do it.
Last year, the Obama Administration put forth its own vision for protecting the country from the cyber threat and today’s briefing was an opportunity for Administration officials to again press the urgency of the matter with legislators.
“There are many threats to the United States but certainly the cyber security threat is the one that needs to be addressed most urgently because we have addressed a lot of the other threats by revising our laws,” said Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas). “We have not done so in the case of cyber. There is also no doubt that the cyber threat is escalating, that the number of attacks not only on private sector computers where there is economic espionage and theft of intellectual property but also on government computers is growing every single day”
The issue is likely to come up again Thursday when intelligence officials offer their world wide threat assessment to the House.