John Michael McConnell, a former Navy vice admiral and director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, told the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing Tuesday afternoon that the United States was the "most vulnerable" target for a massive, crippling cyber attack, primarily because the country is also "the most connected" to the Web.
He offered the panel a stern warning: "If we were in a cyber war today, we would lose."
"We would lose," McConnell repeated.
McConnell also said he feared it would "take that catastrophic event" to get lawmakers to take action to strengthen cyber security.
He sugggested a devastating attack would signal to both voters and their representatives that the Internet poses a real threat to private information, much-needed utilities, ubiquitous financial services and critical government resources.
Tuesday's hearing on the Internet and information security was prompted by a string of high-profile cyberattacks that have hit a number of U.S. businesses -- from a January attack on Google believed to originate in China, to an unrelated attempt later in the month on Intel, to still a third hack that for months targeted smaller businesses in 196 countries.
Legislation that could implement the country's first Web security framework has remained stalled for months in the Senate, in part because the healthcare and jobs debates have consumed lawmakers' time.
A cybersecurity bill did pass the House last year, but that legislation would only devote resources to researching better cybersecurity practices. By contrast, senators working on the upper chamber's bill signaled Tuesday they would prefer a more policy-based bill.
The bill's two co-sponsors, Commerce committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), said Tuesday during they hearing they remain committed to introducing that legislation soon.
"The bill has undergone a number of revisions," Snowe said, noting that she, Rockefeller and others have huddled closely with industry leaders on potential tweaks.
"We risk a cyber-calamity of epic proportions with devastating implications for our nation," she later added, stressing the importance of passing that legislation soon.