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Senate shelves cyber legislation and goes on month-long recess

Jane Holl Lute

The White House pushed hard to get a key cyber security proposal approved in the hours before the Senate voted to cut off debate on the legislation on Aug. 2.

The Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 votes needed to force a final vote on the Cyber Security Act of 2012 on Aug.2, essentially shutting down its chances for passage this year. Congress goes a on a month-long recess on Aug. 3.

On Aug. 1, however, the White House made a final push for its approval by arranging a conference call for reporters with its cyber heavyweights John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism; Gen. Keith Alexander, commander, U.S. Cyber Command, and director, National Security Agency; Jane Holl Lute, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; and Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy. They said the bill was “imperative” to protect the country from a mounting wave of cyber assaults on its critical infrastructure.

During the conference call, on the Cyber Security Act of 2012, sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lute said the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) typically receives one about every 90 seconds on average from critical infrastructure providers with reports of attempted network intrusions. She said there have been about 100,000 incident reports filed and the CERT team has deployed to affected sites 19 times.

Brennan noted there has been a “20 fold increase in infrastructure attacks.”

Alexander said electronic attacks on critical infrastructure are progressing from simple probes to more serious destructive activity.

Lieberman’s bill, said Rosenbach, would clarify and solidify DHS as the “front door” for action against Cyber attack, allowing the agency to work with other government intelligence and defense agencies that have parallel Cyber defense operations. The legislation, said the four, has been crafted to protect civil liberties and having DHS, with its public privacy sensibilities, as the lead agency would be officially codified if the bill passed, said Lute.

The central issue that has largely stymied passage of Cyber security legislation has been the role government should have in establishing infrastructure protection rules. Republicans, like Sen. John McCain (AZ) has pushed against mandatory rules for industry, saying they would increase private industry’s costs without effectively protecting them.

A bill sponsored by McCain is focused on information sharing between federal authorities and private industries, that is similar to a House bill. The White House has threatened to veto the House bill because of privacy concerns.

Lieberman’s bill, argued the White House team, has been revised to include a set of voluntary rules that industry could follow.  

The legislation appears stalled in the senate, however, as Congress prepares for its August break and the fall election. Brennan also said he had “serious concerns” about the House bill, adding he too was anxious about possible privacy issues. He said he hoped the privacy issues between the Senate and House legislation could be worked out when they were conference together after both pass their respective congressional houses.