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As leadership changes, cyber security remains critical issue for Congress

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT)

The lack of electronic protection for America’s critical infrastructure remains the most critical homeland security issue for the next Congress, said a key Senate homeland security committee chairman in a farewell address.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who will relinquish the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee in January, told a standing-room only audience in a speech at George Washington University on Nov. 28, that work on cyber security, as well as reining in radicalized domestic terrorists, were two mostly unresolved issues that nag at him as he prepares to leave office.

Lieberman, who was called “the last founding father” of the Department of Homeland Security by one of the speech’s sponsors at the GW Homeland Security Policy Institute, was a major force behind establishing the department 10 years ago.

He, along with committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-ME) won’t be returning to the committee in the 113th congress in January.

The intricate, frustrating job of putting together and pushing through the comprehensive Cyber security legislation that escaped Lieberman and the 112th congress will fall to incoming Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and committee ranking member Tom Coburn (R-OK), he said. Carper and Coburn, he said, will probably make the legislation an immediate priority as the new congress convenes.

Lieberman, long a vocal advocate for more robust Cyber protections for private infrastructure companies, cited the virulent Cyber attacks on U.S. banks, the Saudi Arabian oil corporation Aramco and the breach of South Carolina’s tax collection agency in which cyber thieves stole over 3.5 million Social Security numbers and information on 387,000 credit and debit card accounts in September as more evidence the U.S. faces a deepening and more ominous Cyber threat.

“We tried to pass Cyber legislation, but it got caught up in irrelevant concerns over government regulation of business,” he said, referring to ultimately successful efforts this fall by Senate Republicans to block his Cyber bill over voluntary standards for Cyber security at businesses.

“Eighty five percent of critical infrastructure is privately-owned,” he said, adding later that power, water, banking and other businesses crucial to everyday life have “an obligation to be part of a public/private solution” for Cyber security. In crafting his bill, he said, “no one said private industry was adequately protected.”

Lieberman also spoke of the successes of DHS in the last ten years. His remarks at GW came almost 10 years to the day of the agency’s creation. The legislation that formed the agency was signed on Nov. 25, 2002.

TSA, he said, “doesn’t win any popularity contests,” but said unless someone comes up with a better idea, the agency has done a good job.

Homegrown terrorists also continue to trouble Lieberman, who noted that since 9/11, the most successful attacks on the U.S. have come from radicalized domestic assailants--Army Major Nidal Hasan’s 2009 attack on U.S. soldiers at Ft. Hood in Texas, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad attack the same year, on an Army recruitment center in Little Rock, AR.

He also warned that congress still needs to address the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to consolidate oversight of DHS and that the looming budget cuts could cut the agency deeply if not thought through. “The danger is that it will be underfunded, especially in developing areas like Cyber security,’ he said.