Senate panel skeptical about U.S.-China cyber accord

Intel and defense chiefs defend the administration's cyber deal with China, but key lawmakers are skeptical.

Shutterstock image: the Capitol Building in autumn with orange leaves.

The Obama administration's new cyber agreement with China came under bipartisan scrutiny from the Senate Armed Services Committee for its perceived vagueness and lack of enforceability and effectiveness.

The modest cyber agreement reached by President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week includes a provision stating that neither government would knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, a charge that many U.S. lawmakers have leveled at China.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's chairman, blasted the agreement at a Sept. 29 hearing as being comprised of "vague commitments" and criticized the White House for having "chosen to reward China" by asking Beijing to help build international cyber norms.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work portrayed the accord as a stepping-stone for hashing out thornier issues in cyberspace rather than an end unto itself.

"This isn't a treaty or anything like that," Work told lawmakers. "It's a confidence-building measure for us to find out if China is going to act responsibly."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the committee he was not optimistic the agreement would do away with China-sponsored cyberattacks but argued that the threat of U.S. sanctions against Chinese firms for conducting or benefiting from cyber espionage had brought Beijing to the negotiating table.

Asked if the agreement had any teeth, Clapper said penalties for violating the accord are implied rather than explicit and offered Ronald Reagan's adage of trust, but verify.

DOD vulnerabilities probed

The U.S. defense industrial base has been a target of Chinese cyber espionage, according to multiple reports. A confidential 2013 Defense Department report cited by the Washington Post said Chinese spies had hacked designs for some of the United States' most advanced weapon systems.

National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers said defense contractors are vulnerable to cyber espionage and that although the Pentagon has tightened cybersecurity requirements in contracts, "we're clearly not where we need to be."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told Rogers, "if it takes more money [to address the problem], let us know."

Cyber vulnerabilities in the weapons systems the Pentagon procures are "a big, big problem," Work said. "Many of the weapons that we have now were not built to withstand a concerted cyberthreat."

He told senators that Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is overseeing a thorough review of cyber vulnerabilities in weapons systems, and the Pentagon is requiring cybersecurity to be incorporated into the design of those systems.

The debate on Capitol Hill and at the White House over how and when to confront China in cyberspace is part of a larger search for a coherent set of cybersecurity policies, including one of cyber deterrence. Lawmakers have repeatedly bemoaned what they say is a lack of deterrence policy from the administration, and Clapper, for one, has said federal networks will continue to be hit by attacks until such a policy is in place.

"Our adversaries view our response to malicious cyber activity as timid and ineffectual," McCain said. "Put simply, the problem is a lack of deterrence."

Work later said that he and Defense Secretary Ash Carter both "recognize that we are not where we need to be in our deterrent posture," adding that "we need to improve in this area, without question."

There are three prongs of the Pentagon's approach to cyber deterrence, Work said: denial, resilience and cost imposition. Officials are further along in defending computer networks and making them resilient to attacks than they are on making it more costly for adversaries to carry out those attacks, he added.