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GOP to Obama: No Executive Order for Cyber-Security

A group of Republican Senators warned President Obama against proceeding with an executive order to establish cyber-security protections for critical infrastructure.

An issue as far-reaching and complicated as cyber-security needs to have stakeholders committed to working together, six Republican Senators wrote in a letter to the president on Oct. 2. The letter was in response to recent statements by White House officials and Democratic legislators about issuing an executive order to protect the country's critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks.

Senators Dan Coats (R-Ind), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga), John McCain (R-Ariz), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex), and Roy Blunt (R-MO), signed the letter to the president.

"Rather than build confidence and unity among key stakeholders, an executive order will solidify the present divide," the legislators wrote.

Several cyber-security-related bills circulated through the House of Representatives and Senate over the past year. The bills covered a wide range of areas, including data breach notification, online privacy, and piracy. The comprehensive legislation backed by the White House, Cybersecurity Act of 2012, contained provisions of how the federal government would protect the nation's critical infrastructure such as electric grids and water supply.

Nearly all Republican Senators and a handful of Democrats blocked a vote on the Cybersecurity Act in August, effectively stalling the bill. Coats, Chambliss, McCain, Kyl, Hutchison, and Blunt all had backed the alternative cyber-security bill, SECURE IT Act, which had also failed to gather enough support to reach the Senate floor for a vote. There are many who believe Congress would pick up the cyber-security issue after the November elections.

"Am I disappointed that we're not there? Sure," Debora Plunkett, head, of the National Security Agency, told attendees at last month's cyber-security forum at Polytechnic University of New York University, before adding, "I predict we're going to have legislation. It will happen."

One of the key areas of disagreement for the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 among the legislators centered on provisions establishing voluntary IT security standards. The bill originally called for government regulation of critical infrastructure owners, and was later modified the bill to propose a process in which the government would collaborate with the private sector to develop best practices that the infrastructure owners could voluntarily adopt.

Most Republicans opposed voluntary standards, claiming it would eventually lead to mandatory regulations.

Several Senators, including the Cybersecurity Act's sponsors Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) have recently urged Obama to issue an executive order addressing some of the cyber-security issues. The order would define voluntary standards and establish the information-sharing program between the government and private sector, but would not be able to provide legal protections to encourage that information sharing.

"The gravity of this threat requires a genuine bipartisan effort to advance legislation, not a selective and unilateral executive order, which simply cannot provide the incentives to encourage private sector participation and the requisite information sharing to address evolving threats," said the letter.

The Republican Senators were committed to the legislative process and urged the president to continue working with Congress to come up with a legislative solution rather than issue an executive order.

"We share the concerns expressed by you and many members of Congress regarding the danger of cyberattacks against the U.S. government and national critical infrastructure," the letter said.

Despite the difficulty getting any kind of consensus in the Senate, the legislative process was the only way to" create the durable and collaborative public-private partnership" necessary to enhance cyber-security, the senators warned in the letter.

"While the Senate has yet to reach an agreement on the best way to enhance cybersecurity, we firmly agree on the need to maintain congressional prerogative when dealing with broad and challenging issues like cybersecurity," the letter said.

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Fahmida Y. Rashid is a Senior Contributing Writer for SecurityWeek. She has experience writing and reviewing security, core Internet infrastructure, open source, networking, and storage. Before setting out her journalism shingle, she spent nine years as a help-desk technician, software and Web application developer, network administrator, and technology consultant.