Cyber-Pearl Harbor would shock the nation

Congress needs to heed Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's unambiguous warning that the United States is becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyberattack. Legislation that would grant new authority to the Department of Homeland Security to set cybersecurity performance requirements for companies and utilities responsible for critical financial and infrastructure systems remains stalled.

Private industry is wary about the cost and the intrusiveness of sharing cybersecurity information with the government and opening its computers to scrutiny.

"We're not interested in looking at email, we're not interested in looking at information in a computer, I'm not interested in violating rights or liberties of people. But if there is a code, if there's a worm that's being inserted, we need to know when that's happening," said Secretary Panetta in a major policy address in New York City Thursday.

While news attention remains focused on the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, the immediate danger could be a terrorist computer hacker attack that sends a passenger or chemical train off a track, shuts down power and communication systems or plays havoc with financial markets. There is speculation that Secretary Panetta's urgency results from a spike in computer-system tampering that could be foreshadowing a more serious attack. Iran-based hackers and independent militant groups are among the suspects.

Secretary Panetta warned of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" striking without warning. Last February, Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, gave another historical but more recent analogy when he spoke on the Senate floor.

"I feel that when it comes to protecting America from cyberattack it is Sept. 10, 2001, and the question is whether we will confront this existential threat before it happens. The system is blinking red, yet we fail to connect the dots - again," said Sen. Lieberman, the self-proclaimed "independent Democrat."

A couple of weeks after making that comment, the retiring senator met with The Day editorial board. He said then he hoped pushing a cybersecurity bill through Congress would be his last, big accomplishment as a senator.

Ironically, a key player in blocking the legislation has been Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Sens. Lieberman and McCain are personally close. And in 2008 Sen. Lieberman, burning what political bridges he had left in the Democratic Party, campaigned for Sen. McCain when he made his run for the presidency, even speaking for him at the Republican National Convention. But in this fight Sen. McCain sides with U.S. Chamber of Commerce in opposing the bill.

More irony is found in the fact Sen. McCain is considered a hawk in his willingness to project U.S. force abroad. Perhaps captive to another era, he seems unwilling to recognize digital destruction can be as dangerous to the nation as traditional planes and tanks, and arguably more so.

The defense secretary raised the specter that in the absence of congressional action it may take an executive order to mandate better cooperation by business and industry. That is an option best avoided, one that would generate controversy and be constitutionally suspect. On this issue the political parties, government and industry need to pull together.

Perhaps Secretary Panetta's urgent warnings will generate action during the lame-duck session that follows the Nov. 6 election.

"I think this is maybe the last really significant contribution I could make to my country's future economic prosperity and national security," Sen. Lieberman told The Day during his visit back in March.

It would be in the nation's interest to see him get that chance.

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