A little-noticed element of Barack Obama’s speech last night was his announcement of an executive order to improve the nation’s cyber security. It’s not as emotionally potent as a call for gun control or a pledge to combat global warming. But it’s an important political and policy development.
The politics are interesting because Obama is using his executive powers, as he may on climate change, to take action after being stymied by Congressional Republicans. Last year, the White House pressed for a cyber bill in Congress, a relatively mild measure that set voluntary standards for businesses–particularly those that control critical infrastructure like power plants–to cooperate with the government in sharing information about malware and hacker threats. But Republicans, backed by the Chamber of Commerce, fretted about big government regulation and offered a far more limited alternative (even as they warned of impending “cyber catastrophe“). So, Obama will do what he can without them. “Since the prospects for a bill remain uncertain,” says a senior administration official, “and given the level of risk, the administration is in a position where it has to take some action. The president is determined to protect our nation against cyber threats.”
The policy is interesting, less for its esoteric details about how Washington will share share of classified threat information with private companies (more on that here), but for what it signals about the rapid growth of cyber as a government priority. As hacking into government and private systems becomes increasingly common, Washington is arming up for computer combat. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command–yes, there is a four-star general in charge of keyboard combat–has announced plans to quintuple in size. In the final months of his tenure, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took to warning about the possibility of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor.” The Pentagon may even start awarding medals for valiant military efforts in cyberspace.
A group of Senate Republicans, including John McCain, were quick to complain about Obama’s unilateral move. And House Republicans, with some Democratic support, are planning to revive their own measure. No one knows whether or when America will suffer a major cyber attack. But the era of cyber politics has begun.