White House simulates cyberattack for senators in push for more regulation

Senior administration officials simulated a cyberattack for a group of senators Wednesday evening as part of their push for legislation that would give the government more control over critical computer systems.

The simulation demonstrated how the federal government would respond to an attack on the New York City electrical grid during a summer heat wave, according to Senate aides.

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, the president's top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt all participated.

All 100 senators were invited and about 25 to 30 attended, one aide estimated.

The simulation was part of the White House's push for Congress to enact cybersecurity legislation this year that gives the government the power to set security standards for critical infrastructure.

"The classified scenario was intended to provide all Senators with an appreciation for new legislative authorities that could help the U.S. Government prevent and more quickly respond to cyber attacks," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council. "Only Congress can modernize our underlying laws and give us the full range of tools our cybersecurity professionals need to more effectively deal with this growing and increasingly sophisticated threat, including risk-based performance standards to ensure the nation’s most vital of critical infrastructure systems meet a baseline level of security. As the President emphasized in the State of the Union, we need Congress to act swiftly to provide the authorities we need to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from the growing danger of cyber-threats."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring a cybersecurity bill authored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to a vote in the coming weeks. The legislation would give the Homeland Security Department the power to require private computer systems deemed critical to national security to meet certain security standards.

“The simulation was realistic and illustrated just how dangerous inaction on cybersecurity legislation can be,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who backs Lieberman's bill.  “I think several of my colleagues were convinced that immediate action is required."

A group of Republicans led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pushing an alternate proposal, the Secure IT Act, that would focus on encouraging information sharing about cyberthreats rather than creating new regulations.

The Republicans say Lieberman's bill would burden businesses with costly and ineffective regulations. But Lieberman and his supporters say the country will be at risk of a devastating cyberattack unless the government has the power to ensure that critical systems meet basic security standards.

The Obama administration backs Lieberman's bill and has warned Congress not to resort to "half-measures" that do not protect critical infrastructure.

Leslie Phillips, a spokeswoman for Lieberman, said she believes the demonstration was effective in convincing senators of the need for cybersecurity regulations.

"I think the administration officials persuaded many of the senators this is a growing and potentially dangerous concern and Congress should not delay to address the vulnerabilities that exist, especially for critical infrastructure," Phillips said.

— This story was updated at 12:36 p.m.