Whitehouse: Congress needs clarity on who handles cybersecurity

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Monday stressed lawmakers needed to address gaps in cybersecurity enforcement that could create confusion over who handles a specific threat.

During an interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Rhode Island Democrat said "boundary issues between the intelligence community and other covert organizations," including the National Security Agency, had to be "made clear so that you don't end up with ball dropping between the two fielders."

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That specificity would ensure that "everyone knows where their responsibilities begin and end," added Whitehouse, who is heading up a cybersecurity task force commissioned by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. That effort is on track to deliver a report to lawmakers this summer, the senator said.

IWhitehouse's remarks Monday illustrate the key challenge confounding lawmakers, national security experts and intelligence chiefs: how to determine who monitors, leads and responds to cybersecurity threats, which are diverse in nature in source.

Some of those attacks originate domestically, while others are hatched internationally, and still others have no connection to the state in which the hacker lives. That confusion makes attribution arduous, and also calls into question whether military leaders, intelligence officials or law enforcement should respond.

Further still, it creates the need for congressional action to define boundaries while simultaneously protecting Americans' civil liberties, Whitehouse said. 

“Cyberspace is an entirely new frontier and it’s a massive frontier. So one could easily spend a great deal of time engaged in oversight that was ineffectual because it wasn’t focused at the real key problem areas," he explained. 

"Identification of the areas that are likely to be problematic, that are likely to require legislative change, that are likely to lead to boundary disputes or confusion or that bump up against civil liberties  and privacy concerns are the key areas where we need to be focusing our time,” Whitehouse said.