Senator still waiting on grid cyber assessments from Energy

Shutterstock photo ID: 200726867 By chuyuss 

Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee challenged Energy Secretary Rick Perry about his agency's commitment to the cybersecurity of the energy sector.

During a March 20 committee hearing on the Energy Department's $30.6 billion budget request, Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) repeatedly asked Perry about the status of formal risk assessments into Russian cyber intrusions into U.S. critical infrastructure.

Cantwell began asking the agency about the assessments a year ago.

In light of the assertions by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on March 15 that Russia had targeted U.S. nuclear power plants and electrical grids with a cyber intrusion campaign, she said the assessments were more critical than ever.

That report coincided with the Treasury Department's announcement of economic sanctions against five entities, including Russian intelligence agencies, and 19 individuals and the formal outing of Russia as the sponsor of the Dragonfly hacking group.

"I hope we will get this assessment of the grid as a milestone on what we need to do moving forward," Cantwell said.

Later in the hearing, Perry said work on those assessments is underway at his agency, but he offered no firm date on their completion.

"Our energy infrastructure is under attack -- it's under cyberattack, and we need to do much more to protect it as national critical asset," Cantwell said. "Establishing a new cyber office with marginal increases is not a substitute for meaningful action we need."

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also expressed concern over DOE's role leading energy sector cybersecurity.

"Know I share Sen. Cantwell's concern on this. I want to make sure DOE is cooperating with DHS and the FBI with implementation of actions in response to this, but also to make sure that DOE is taking the lead as the sector-specific agency," she said.

Murkowski also noted that she had discussed the DOE's legislatively designated authority as the lead in the energy sector cybersecurity with Perry the day before the hearing.

After the hearing, a committee source said it had not received any more information from DOE about the cybersecurity assessments, nor had it received a timeline from the agency on their completion. The source expressed frustration about the lack of response on a number of congressional inquiries to the White House and its handling of Russian cybersecurity concerns.

During the hearing, Perry responded to Cantwell's concerns when questioned about the agency's approach to cybersecurity. He said the agency's proposed $96 million Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response  account would help consolidate funding to address the agency's expanding cybersecurity responsibilities.

CESER, he said, would establish a more direct line of intra-agency communications, through a proposed deputy secretary, about  cyber threats to energy infrastructure. The agency is also "spending dollars in other areas of the budget" that will impact overall cybersecurity, he said.

He pointed to the budget proposal's request for $636 million to ramp up exascale computing development. He said a proposed increase to that program would help fuel the massive data processing capabilities needed to combat growing threats such as NotPetya and Wannacry.

Cybersecurity, he said, "is not just a line item for CESER."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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