House-Senate dispute looms over cybersecurity authority

Aides in the Senate criticize idea of moving responsibility for cybersecurity to a new White House Office that has yet to be created.

Two key House lawmakers said Monday that they are prepared to introduce legislation overhauling the U.S. government's cybersecurity efforts -- a move that could put them on a collision course with their Senate counterparts.

Congress might have to take legislative action to codify recommendations released Monday by an independent cybersecurity commission, House Homeland Security Emerging Threats Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin, D-R.I., and ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told CongressDaily.

"The nature of warfare has forever changed because of cybersecurity," Langevin said in an interview. "We will never again see modern warfare conducted without a cyber component as a part of it."

"Whether you're talking about warfare or dealing with intelligence gathering, the world has changed forever," he added. "And the question is: How do we best protect ourselves against this new type of threat?"

Notably, the commission, established by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recommended that the incoming administration of President-elect Obama should appoint an assistant for cyberspace and give that person an office within the White House.

Obama should also establish a cybersecurity directorate under the National Security Council, essentially abolishing the current National Cybersecurity Center created within the Homeland Security Department by the Bush administration.

The reorganization would effectively strip the department of its command role in federal cybersecurity operations.

Langevin and McCaul said such a reorganization could be done administratively by the Obama administration. But they are prepared to introduce legislation to codify the reorganization and implement other commission recommendations, if necessary.

"Some of it will require legislation and, where it's appropriate, we're going to introduce legislation and push it through the Congress," Langevin said.

"They could probably do it on their own, I suppose, but I think it would be better to codify it," McCaul added.

Senate aides criticized the idea of moving responsibility for cybersecurity from the department to a new White House office that has not yet been created. The new assistant for cyberspace would amount to nothing more than a powerless "czar" because he or she would not have budget or personnel authority over agencies, they said.

The aides pointed to a Homeland Security authorization bill introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman and ranking member Susan Collins that instead would codify and strengthen the department's leadership role in cybersecurity.

"The authority needs to rest at DHS," a Senate aide said. "If you're really going to start talking to agencies about what their contracts should look like and what are the performance metrics that are needed, that's not the kind of labor intensive work that the White House can handle."

Lieberman and Collins have proven they can battle and win fights over how best to organize the federal government. Most recently, they prevented the Federal Emergency Management Agency from being pulled out of the department.

Langevin said he plans to meet with Lieberman and Collins over the issue.

"I don't think Sen. Lieberman or Sen. Collins have had the opportunity to read [the commission's] report," he said. "I'll be looking forward to sitting down with them and explaining our reasoning as to why we think this is the best way to go."

A department spokeswoman also criticized the reorganization proposal, saying it would be "a dangerous enterprise" for now.

"We are already coordinating through our interagency efforts on cybersecurity," the spokeswoman said. "To add an extra layer of bureaucracy and to rearrange the deck chairs is an inefficient use of time and resources."

The commission hopes to brief Obama's transition team on its report before Christmas, said James Lewis, the panel's project director. Obama has said publicly that he plans to appoint a national cyber adviser, and several members of the commission are already working with his transition team.