Is piecemeal the right approach to cyber legislation?

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Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is among the legislators who want to talk cybersecurity legislation "in bite-sized chunks."

The various cybersecurity bills proposed last year shared a couple of traits: They all took a fairly comprehensive approach to addressing a number of aspects of a complex issue, and none became law.

This year has seen a different approach targeting specific areas -- in particular, those that enjoy at least some degree of consensus. One key lawmaker said that is the better way to go if cyber legislation is to be enacted anytime soon.

"We've been frozen legislatively for years, not being able to do anything. So let's not try to do everything. Let's take it in bite-size chunks and make some advancement," Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said July 30 at the AFCEA Global Intelligence Forum in Washington. "I think there is enough concern about cyber in both parties that there is a chance to do it. I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but the more focus we take in these bite-size chunks we have, the better chance we'll have."

Thornberry, while taking some swipes at the Senate, praised progress made in recent days on a new cyber information-sharing bill marked up by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, led by bill sponsor Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

"I think that's a huge step forward. It's a major advance if we can get the Senate to look at discrete, bite-size chunks rather than trying to do everything at once," said Thornberry, who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee's Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee and is also a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "The truth is, there is a bunch of this stuff that everybody agrees Congress ought to do, but then we get balled up on regulation and details of some of these issues. Keep working on those differences, but let's work on the stuff everyone agrees on," such as information sharing and an overhaul of the Federal Information Security Management Act.

As hopeful as Thornberry might be, the self-described optimist acknowledged that actually passing any cybersecurity bill remains an iffy proposition.

"Legislatively, we're on a better, certainly more hopeful, track," he said. "At the same time, we have to pay attention to the environment we're in. The current [National Security Agency] leak means there's not going to be a cyber bill that comes to the floor in the immediate future, although September is possible."

Beyond cyber-specific legislation, Thornberry said other efforts are underway on the Hill to address cybersecurity. He said members have been getting educated by senior Defense Department and intelligence community officials to better understand the threat landscape, and various committees have been collaborating on the issue.

That cooperation means a designated "cyber committee" is unlikely, Thornberry noted.

"I do think cyber has gotten elevated to the point where...[we have] this kind of task force drawing on nine different committees," he said. "It's not the ideal way to work every day, but on the other hand, cyber so permeates everything that we do that [we] can't make a cyber committee. So, we have these cross-cutting develop a body of expertise," which then is taken back to other committees and members and shared throughout Congress.

Congress also is looking beyond the Hill -- specifically, across the river to the Pentagon, where the future of the U.S. Cyber Command is set for reevaluation. Cyber Command, led by dual-hatted NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, is a sub-unified command under the U.S. Strategic Command. Some have argued that its status should be elevated.

"We require in this year's [House defense authorization bill] an independent assessment of the organizational structure for Cyber Command and moving ahead, looking at options," Thornberry said. "My guess is Cyber Command is not going to remain a sub-unified command under Stratcom or anybody else in the future. The harder question is whether NSA and Cyber Command will continue to be under the same individual."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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