Senators got a taste Wednesday night of what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called his worst nightmare, a cyber attack on the on the United States' infrastructure.
Senior officials from the Obama administration briefed assembled senators on a hypothetical scenario, said National Security Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. The briefing, at the request of the senators, was intended "to provide all Senators with an appreciation for new legislative authorities that could help the U.S. Government prevent and more quickly respond to cyber attacks," according to Hayden.
First word of the classified briefing came when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, took to the floor to complain about the slow pace of progress on key measures. Among those, as we've reported, cyber security.
The senate is at loggerheads over the right way to run cyber security, with competing bills being presented.
“We had a demonstration here in our classified briefing room to talk about what’s going on in America and what could go on in America about bringing down our – bringing down our country,” Reid said. “The demonstration last night dealt with electricity, but it could be banking, it could be our hospitals. We have to recognize that we now have new enemies in the world. Not enemies that are flying airplanes and dropping bombs necessarily or shooting us with bullets, but they are prepared to do something that is so damaging to our economy and we were given that illustration last night.”
In his State of the Union speech in January, the president urged Congress to pass cyber security legislation.
"Only Congress can modernize our underlying laws and give us the full range of tools our cybersecurity professionals need to more effectively deal with this growing and increasingly sophisticated threat, including risk-based performance standards to ensure the nation’s most vital of critical infrastructure systems meet a baseline level of security," Hayden said in an emailed statement.
Among those briefing the senators on Wednesday were national security advisor John Brennan, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, Joint Chiefs
Chairman General Martin Dempsey, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stephanie O'Sullivan, General Keith Alexander of the National Security Agency and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
"Reid’s warning took us back to the CNN/American Enterprise Institute/Heritage Foundation National Security Debate, when AEI Fellow Marc Thiessen asked the GOP hopefuls this great question: “What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about, either here or in any of the debates so far?," Jaconi and Preston observe.
One of those who answered cyber attacks is an aspiring defense secretary. Clearly he and Panetta have something in common.