A blackout in Manhattan. A major dam failure. Mayhem at a chemical plant. Those are all potential, and entirely plausible, consequences of a cyber attack, according to a range of current and former national security officials, including the top American commander in charge of cyber security. But after months of inconclusive debate, Congress skipped town last week without passing a cyber security law. And neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama had anything to say about it.
It’s curious that cyber security would be absent from the presidential campaign. The national security stakes are obvious. It’s a technical issue, perhaps, but any American who’s had a computer virus can understand it. And as a political proposition, it offers Barack Obama a fine opportunity to attack Republicans from their right.
Some quick background: Nearly everyone agrees that corporate America’s cyber defenses are vulnerable to attacks by hostile governments and rogue hackers. General Keith Alexander, who heads the Pentagon’s cyber command — yes, there is now a general in charge of cyber war — recently said that cyber attacks on U.S. infrastructure were up seventeen times between 2009 and 2011, and warned that an attack inflicting major damage is inevitable. With the support of the White House, Alexander and other nonpartisan security officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, have urged Congress to impose new regulations on businesses that would require them to shore up their cyber security and more closely coordinate with the feds.
But the business lobby resisted, and Republicans followed suit. New regulations mean new costs, and new powers for the federal government. House Republicans passed a cyber security bill earlier this year, but its scope was limited and the White House deemed it too weak. An alternate version was introduced in the Senate by those notorious left-wingers Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman. The White House backed the measure, but Republicans blocked it–in part by larding it with amendments on such related issues as abortion and Obamacare.
Lieberman’s frustration is a good barometer of the situation–particularly given that it’s been directed at his good friend, John McCain. Lieberman and McCain have long been simpatico on a range of post-9/11 security issues, and usually in conflict with Democrats. But cyber security has divided them: Lieberman wants tough federal action, but McCain is siding with business. That led to a tense public exchange earlier this year, and tempers flared again last week, when Lieberman accused McCain of carrying water for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which adamantly opposes new regulations. The Chamber even opposed a watered-down version of Lieberman’s original bill that replaced mandatory regulations on business with incentives to take voluntary action.
At a minimum, this affords Obama a chance to bash a “do-nothing Congress” for taking a vacation when top officials are warning about severe security threat. But if he wants to put some real topspin on the ball, he can make a slightly tougher point. Obama could bash Republicans for putting big business ahead of national security. Sure, that would be “playing politics” with security–but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that when security really does depend on political outcomes. It would certainly be no worse than George W. Bush’s 2002 attacks on Democrats for opposing the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, thanks to labor’s objections about anti-union measures. “The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people,” Bush famously declared back then.
Democrats were outraged, and Obama might abhor making the same kind of attack. He may also think people just aren’t scared enough about cyber terrorism for it to be worth making a fuss about. But Joe Lieberman has already set the template for him: “They’re trying to make this into a business versus government regulation issue, which it’s not,” Lieberman told Politico last week. “It’s a question of the safety and security of the American people.” It’s not often that Obama has a chance to invoke Joe Lieberman in defense of his national security policies; it will be interesting to see whether Obama takes advantage of this golden opportunity.
Update: A White House aide writes to protest the notion that the president has said little about the cyber bill. Obama did pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the subject last month, in which he argues “[i]t’s time to strengthen our defenses against this growing danger.” Other senior administration officials have weighed in as well, including counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan and, more recently, a pair of senior officials from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. It remains to be seen whether Obama chooses to take up this issue in a campaign context. Romney and his campaign, as far as I can tell, have been silent.
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