Senators: Bill needed to prevent a 'cyber 9/11'

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and co-sponsors of his cybersecurity bill on Tuesday called for the Senate to pass the measure before the August recess, arguing it would ensure the United States averts a devastating "cyber 9/11" attack. 

The co-sponsors defended a revised version of the bill introduced last week and said it was a compromise that members of both parties should be able to support. The changes in the latest version of the bill were made to allay concerns from the private sector and Senate Republicans that it was too regulatory, and to satisfy privacy and civil liberties groups that sought stronger privacy protections.

"We co-sponsors, to be blunt, gave up some things that we thought were important in our original bill, but given the urgency and seriousness of the cyber threat to our country, we thought it was more important to move forward with a bill that will significantly strengthen our cybersecurity," Lieberman said. 

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to move to the cybersecurity bill after the Senate wraps up votes on taxes, a move that's received criticism from Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who wanted the defense authorization bill to be teed up next.


Reid told reporters on Tuesday that "amendments will be allowed that are relevant to this issue. There's no reason we can't debate on it."


Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the changes to the cybersecurity bill "helped us get a significant number of votes from Republican members to proceed to the bill."

"Without the changes we've made, I'm not sure we would have had enough votes to proceed,” she said.

The revamped bill drops provisions that would have required operators of critical infrastructure to meet a set of security standards developed, in part, by the Homeland Security Department. The revised bill proposes to establish a program where critical infrastructure operators could elect to meet cybersecurity standards approved by a government-led interagency council in exchange for incentives. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a statement last week, saying it was still reviewing the revised bill, but took issue with the proposal for the voluntary program. The business lobby argued that it would be voluntary in theory and likely regulatory in practice. 

While Lieberman said he was disappointed that business groups were still unsatisfied with the changes, he said other senators have told him the bill looks "more reasonable" than before.

"I don't want to start naming names, but I got a really good feeling about the votes for the motion to proceed," he said.

Reid put members on notice to stay in Washington this weekend because he might want to begin debate or processing amendments, Lieberman said following the press conference. 

Lieberman backed Reid's decision to take up cybersecurity before the defense authorization bill, saying security standards need to be established for critical infrastructure.

"In terms of urgency, I believe the cybersecurity bill is more urgent," he said. "We're not imagining this threat. We're being attacked through cyberspace every day. The reality is a lot of the private companies that own critical cyber infrastructure are doing a good job in defending that cyber infrastructure and our country, but a lot of them are not." 

When making the case for their bill, the co-sponsors cited warnings from top defense officials such as U.S. Cyber Command head Gen. Keith Alexander and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the United States faces serious cyber threats that could damage the nation’s economic and national security.

Collins said the Senate needs to act on the warnings now so the government does not repeat the same mistakes it made when handling intelligence in the run-up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We do not want to be in the same position again when cyber 9/11 hits," Collins said. "It is not a question of whether this will happen, it is a question of when. I hope that our colleagues will listen to the repeated warnings that we have heard from law enforcement, national security and homeland security experts." 

The bill "represents the Senate's best chance to pass a cybersecurity bill this year," she said. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) repeated that call.

"We cannot afford to make that mistake," he said. "That's why we [have] got to get this passed before the August recess, and I believe we will."

Rockefeller also noted that the bill co-sponsors and their staffs have been speaking for more than three years about cybersecurity legislation and there was "so much give and take" during discussions with the private sector and consultations with members who were "a little put off" by the bill text.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said that more work on cybersecurity may need to be done in the future as the "bill is not the finish line."

This story was last updated at 2:59 p.m.