Aug. 8, 2012 – 3:09 p.m.

White House to Move Forward on Cyber Initiatives, Press Congress to Pass Bill

Unable to persuade Congress to give the executive branch new powers to protect computer networks, the Obama administration will simultaneously try to bolster cybersecurity on its own and press Congress to get back to work on passing a bill, a top White House official said Wednesday.

“One of the things we need to do in the executive branch is see what we can do to maybe put additional guidelines and policies in place under executive branch authorities,” John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the Congress is not going to act on something like this, the president wants to make sure we’re doing everything possible.”

Last week, the Senate voted to block a procedure that would have ended debate on a cybersecurity bill (S 3414) sponsored by Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others. Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on which amendments to the bill to consider.

The legislation would have created a set of voluntary security standards for private sector owners of the most vital digital infrastructure, and rewarded businesses that met them with liability protections and other incentives.

Many Republicans and the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed the legislation, which they said could lead to the voluntary standards becoming mandatory and intrusive. The White House pushed the legislation hard, especially in the final week when it appeared it could be blocked.

“The consequences are, we’re not going to have the enhanced authorities and capabilities in the U.S. government to deal with an increasingly serious cyber challenge to our nation and critical infrastructure,” Brennan said. “President Obama has told us after Collins-Lieberman didn’t go forward to keep at it and keep pushing, and we are going to keep pushing. We’ll keep pushing on the Congress, but we’ll also do what we can with executive branch authorities.”

Although Brennan wasn’t specific, he said the effort could include an executive order, in addition to agencies — including the Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and others — coming up with new initiatives.

“An executive order is a good vehicle to direct departments and agencies to do certain things to make sure the nation is protected,” he said. “We worked hard, delivered our legislative package to the Hill in April, May of last year and unfortunately the Senate bill went down. We can’t wait.”

The Obama administration has undertaken several independent programs as part of its “We Can’t Wait” initiative, aimed at stepping in to act on issues when Congress does not pass legislation. Some of those proposals, however, have run afoul of a Congress that either disagrees with the policies or the president’s authority to implement them without the legislative branch.

At least one lawmaker, however, thinks that Obama should issue an executive order on cybersecurity. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who has sponsored legislation in the past to bolster the cyberdefenses of networks tied to the electricity grid, said Wednesday that Obama had little choice but to take matters in his own hands.

“If congressional Republicans insist on fully entrusting the safety of our grid to a utility industry that is ill-equipped to adequately and uniformly respond to threats and vulnerabilities that are of paramount importance to national security, then you can and must take action to mitigate these threats and vulnerabilities to the extent possible by executive order,” he wrote in a letter to Obama.

The various sides of the cybersecurity debate have vowed to keep pressing for passage of a cyber bill this year, with Republicans suggesting September as a time frame.

But the sponsors of the stymied legislation said they were not optimistic because they have already tried to compromise by watering down earlier proposals for mandatory standards, and that haven’t seen much effort to compromise by their critics.