Capitol Hill intel leaders: Final cyber bill is ‘very close’

Congress’s top intelligence leaders insisted on Tuesday that a final deal is imminent on the text of major cybersecurity legislation.

“I think we’re very close,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, told The Hill. “We’re hoping to close in on a final product imminently.”

{mosads}“I think it’s about done,” added Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) acknowledged there were “some issues or differences,” but maintained, “we’re working through them pretty methodically.”

The hopefulness comes after several days of intense wrangling between the two Intelligence committees and the House Homeland Security Committee that some thought might kick the cyber bill talks into next year.

Negotiators are scrambling to merge bills from all three committees that aim to encourage businesses to share more data on hackers with the government. The goal is to have a bill on President Obama’s desk by the end of the year, but lawmakers are increasingly under a time crunch.

According to several people involved in the negotiations, the Senate and House Intelligence committees had essentially created a final text as of last Friday through unofficial meetings, handing it over to the House Homeland Security Committee for the panel’s blessing.

But Homeland Security staff pushed back, frustrated that many of their bill’s privacy provisions had not been included.

Outsiders tracking the discussions believe Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) — who cosponsored his panel’s bill — could derail the talks by going public with his displeasure. But many have heard he is under considerable pressure from House leadership to negotiate quietly and accept the deal.

“I am continuing to work with other congressional leaders in this fluid process to produce the best possible legislation on information sharing,” McCaul said in a Tuesday statement. “I am pleased that we are making progress on many aspects of the bill, particularly with regard to privacy and civil liberties protections.”

McCaul has also long championed a cyber info-sharing bill, giving him further incentive to complete negotiations.

“This legislation has the potential to be the strongest, most important piece of cybersecurity legislation ever produced by the Congress,” he said.

Digital rights and privacy groups are urging McCaul to take a stand, while encouraging their supporters to bombard him with messages.

“They’re using a sneaky, non-transparent process to force a rushed vote and keep the public, and even members of Congress, in the dark about what they’re really voting on,” said Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, which has been protesting the cyber bill for months.

While many industry groups, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and even the White House have insisted the cyber bill is a necessary first step to combating cyberattacks, numerous tech companies, technologists and digital rights groups believe the measure would simply shuttle more of Americans’ personal data to the National Security Agency (NSA).

These opponents believe the Homeland bill has the strongest language to limit the personal data that may be shared with intelligence agencies.

The crux of the disagreement between Intelligence and Homeland centers mostly on provisions that would allow companies to share information directly with a number of government agencies other than the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), possibly including intelligence agencies.

Most cyber policy experts agree the DHS is best suited to review and strip personal details from any information shared with the government before it is disseminated to other federal agencies.

But some believe forcing all companies to go through the DHS could slow the sharing of time-sensitive, vital data with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on Homeland Security, told The Hill the two sides were still hammering out the language surrounding the so-called DHS “portal.”

“I think we have to clearly define the role of DHS and it should not be one where [people] have to work through somebody else,” Thompson said.

Burr and others believe the issue is mostly settled.

“I think we’ve got great language,” he told reporters. “We worked out our problems with the [Obama] administration and [the Department of Homeland Security] before we ever moved the bill in the Senate.”

Without commenting on the DHS issue specifically, Schiff agreed, “all the big issues have been resolved.”

“There just aren’t that many differences to bridge any more,” he added.

But as negotiations spill into Wednesday, time is running short. Lawmakers had initially hoped to have the full House vote on the completed bill by midweek, and then attach the text in the Senate to an omnibus budget deal that is expected sometime later this week.

“We’re very much in the weeds,” Schiff said, “but the clock is ticking against us.”

Tags Adam Schiff Dianne Feinstein Richard Burr
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