Senate Homeland Security Committee approves cybersecurity legislation

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs approved a comprehensive cybersecurity bill on Thursday after amending it to limit the president's authority in the event of a cyber emergency.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) would make the Department of Homeland Security responsible for protecting civilian networks in the government and private sector. The bill will now head to the full Senate for a vote, where it will likely be merged with other competing pieces of cybersecurity legislation.

"These cyber attacks are increasingly more sophisticated, more persistent and more successful," Carper said. "In short — the status quo is simply not enough."

The original bill gave the president indefinite emergency authority to shut down private sector or government networks in the event of a cyber attack capable of causing massive damage or loss of life. An amendment passed Thursday limits that authority further, requiring the president to get Congressional approval after controlling a network for 120 days.

Collins said she was disappointed to read reports that the bill gives the White House a "kill switch" for the Internet, an authority she says the president already has under a little-known clause in the Communications Act passed one month after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.

"It's been frustrating to read some of the misrepresentations of our bill in the cybersphere," Collins said, arguing the new bill actually circumscribes the president's existing authority and puts controls on its use. "I believe the substitute amendment we’re offering strengthens those protections even more."

During the markup Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeated his concerns about the Department of Homeland Security being in charge of civilian cybersecurity, claiming the department's response to recent attempted terrorist attacks have shaken his confidence in its ability to effectively carry out the mission. McCain also expressed trepidation about passing legislation that would result in the expansion of the federal workforce and budget.