NSA scandal hampers cyber legislation

Congress's efforts to pass a cybersecurity bill may be hopeless for now.

capitol dome

The push to pass cybersecurity legislation may have hit a roadblock that will leave it stalled for some time, following the National Security Agency scandal.

No cyber bill has a chance of passing right now, "Especially if it involves NSA," said Jim Lewis, senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Maybe some vanilla bills on workforce or [research and development], but nothing big."

The most recent proposed cybersecurity legislation came in July, with a bill from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that aimed to codify the role of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which currently is working on a cybersecurity framework. That bill was less ambitious in scope than those that previously failed, but even scaled-back efforts face a cyber-political paralysis for the foreseeable future.

Despite the less-than-optimal legislative atmosphere, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reportedly is working on a new bill that would complement the House's Cybersecurity Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act passed in April. Like CISPA, Feinstein's bill would focus on lowering barriers for information-sharing between companies and the government, according to The Hill.

Word of Feinstein's bill came a day before Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, reiterated the need for legislation that allows industry and government to share critical cybersecurity data. Speaking in Washington on Sept. 25, Alexander alluded to a potential cyberattack on Wall Street that could have disastrous consequences.

"What we can tell you is how they went down and how bad they were, but if we can't work with industry, if we can't share information with them, we can't stop it," he said.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of a bill that promotes the exchange of online activities and metadata information just sound too much like the maligned NSA surveillance programs to get anywhere in Congress this year.

"More members of Congress do recognize the need to do something, but the politics are different now in the post-Snowden national security discussion. ... It changed the calculus on the hill in terms of how to legislate cybersecurity," said Matthew Rhoades, legislative affairs director at the Truman Project and Truman Institute. "Behind the scenes the House and Senate may work together to get closer on passing something, but publicly how they respond to the NSA leaks has to be dealt with; only then will there be room to treat cyber legislation as cyber legislation and not connected to the NSA piece."

A crowded legislative calendar only adds to the difficulty. Congress is embroiled in trying to pass a continuing resolution, then will likely take on the debt ceiling, possibly another CR, a defense bill and, perhaps at some point, regular appropriations work before the end of the calendar year.

Still, lawmakers insist cybersecurity remains a priority.

"In recent months, a perfect storm -- from the Snowden leaks to subsequent domestic and international crises -- enveloped comprehensive cybersecurity legislation, significantly curtailing its prospects of passage in the near future," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "However, given the escalating nature of the cyber threat, which still remains one of the most serious economic and national security challenges facing our nation, it would be premature to put the final nail in the coffin for a cybersecurity bill."

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