Whitehouse and the Three Amigos

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is apparently in the middle of a push to compromise on the big cybersecurity bill before Congress. From The Hill (see below the story for my analysis):

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) revealed on Tuesday that he is working to chart a middle path on cybersecurity legislation.

Graham told The Hill he is working with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to develop a compromise proposal on the issue. 

But he emphasized that the senators have yet to finalize any legislation.

The move puts Graham in the middle of a debate between two of his closest friends in the Senate: Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

The three lawmakers, sometimes called the "Three Amigos," usually see eye-to-eye on national security issues. But McCain is the leading opponent of Lieberman's cybersecurity bill, which Lieberman has said is his top legislative priority before he retires at the end of the year.

Lieberman's bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and has the support of the White House, would give the Homeland Security Department the authority to require that critical infrastructure such as electrical grids and gas pipelines meet minimum cybersecurity standards.

Supports of the bill say the mandates are necessary to ensure that vital systems are safe from attacks.

But McCain and other Republicans argue the mandates would impose unnecessary burdens on businesses.

A draft of the Kyl-Whitehouse compromise proposal would put the Homeland Security Department in charge of developing a program to pressure, but not force, critical infrastructure companies to better protect their computer systems.

Kyl told The Hill on Tuesday that he's trying to find middle ground, saying cybersecurity is a "very, very important issue that needs to resolved." He declined to discuss specifics of his proposal or which senators are involved.

McCain said he has not participated in the discussions.

He also criticized the compromise proposal, saying it "gives too much authority to Homeland Security."

"I'm not ready to let them write regulations," McCain told The Hill.

The compromise may be all that's politically feasible. But it would push the Senate bill closer to one in the Republican-controlled House that some cybersecurity experts believe doesn't go far enough to protect the power grid and other critical infrastructure.

The utilities have been reluctant to make a big investment, on their own, to defend against what they view as a highly unlikely cyber attack. And such an attack may, indeed, be unlikely - at least for now. It's hard to imagine a foreign government like China or even Iran crashing the grid. China has too much to lose if it sends its biggest trading partner into an economic tailspin and Iran could subject itself to a major military assault.

But terrorists, if they ever build the capacity for such an attack, would surely engage in it. And if the attack were successful, it could be devastating. Hence the push for mandates on the utilities.


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