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Q&A

Swan Song

A senator animated by bipartisanship wants to make cybersecurity his last act.

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And in the end: Joe Lieberman(Chet Susslin)

After 24 years in Congress and a run as a vice presidential nominee, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., will hang up his hat. But before he retires at the end of the year, Lieberman is leading the fight for broad legislation designed to protect U.S. Internet networks from cyberattacks. Cybersecurity is vital not only to America’s security but also to its economic strength, Lieberman tells National Journal. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ Why cybersecurity, why now?

 

LIEBERMAN Why not before, would be my answer. More and more, it’s become clear that this extraordinary capability that we’ve developed over the Internet—which we depend on for commerce, education, recreation—is also being used to attack us militarily, to steal from us in terms of enormously valuable industrial secrets, and to literally steal money by moving [it] from one account to the other. The more that I’ve got into this over the years, the more I’ve come to agree with FBI Director [Robert] Mueller, who says that in the not-too-distant future, cyberattacks will surpass terrorism in terms of the threat they represent to the American people, the American economy, and our homeland. This vast part of our society … is not well-defended at all.

NJ There were huge protests over antipiracy legislation in January. How did they affect your work on cybersecurity?

LIEBERMAN The antipiracy legislation and the public reaction to it really have left an impression on members of Congress. We’ve done two things. We took out the section that we thought some people would conclude gave the president the authority in a crisis to turn off the Internet. (We didn’t think it did that except in an extreme situation; we actually thought we limited the existing statutory authority the president has, but it wasn’t worth it, so that’s out.) The other thing is just education and information, because this bill shouldn’t affect the average citizen’s use of the Internet in any way. It’s targeted at a narrow band of companies that operate cybersystems, which, if they were attacked, could result in mass causalities, catastrophic economic damage, mass evacuations, degradation of national security.

 

NJ Where is cybersecurity among your priorities for your last year in Congress?

LIEBERMAN This is absolutely my top legislative priority of this last year. In terms of national security, there is nothing more significant that I can do for my country. It’s that important to our future.

NJ How do these issues tie in with larger efforts to get the economy back on its feet?

LIEBERMAN I don’t think that people are thinking of cybersecurity in economic terms. It’s hard to estimate the lost wealth that results from cyberthievery, but I’ve seen estimates that go into the hundreds of billions of dollars. The more significant part is this methodical theft of industrial secrets. China is not the only country doing this but is by far the largest actor. It’s not just espionage; it’s theft. I believe we’ve lost tens of thousands of jobs to foreign countries because a lot of our industries are not adequately defended against this kind of theft. Adopting a tough cybersecurity bill will be one of the best things we can do to protect American jobs now and in the future.

 

NJ People often say that homeland-security issues shouldn’t be partisan, but they are. Is partisanship hurting your work?

LIEBERMAN Absolutely. The place has become reflexively partisan and ideologically rigid. And by that I mean that people are not willing to stretch to find common ground. Compromise is not a matter of compromising principle. It’s a matter of agreeing that you can’t get 100 percent of what you want, generally speaking. I’ve been very disappointed that we’ve been getting some very reflexive reactions to this [cybersecurity] bill that try to describe it as somehow too much regulation of business. There are obviously some other areas where regulation of business may not be worth the economic cost. But we’re not talking about that here. This is national security.

NJ How optimistic are you that something can be accomplished by the end of the year?

LIEBERMAN Nothing’s easy around here. It’s not easy to pass legislation in the current partisan context. But if there was ever a bill that there ought to be bipartisan support for, it’s this one, because we really are talking about national security. We’ve got an opportunity to do what we didn’t do before 9/11. We’ve got an opportunity to fix this problem before we’re attacked. I hope and pray that we deal with it and we don’t run around frantically after an attack to close loopholes we can close now.

NJ What are your plans after the Senate?

LIEBERMAN I don’t know. I’m going to focus on it in the fall.… I feel very privileged to have been here 24 years, and I feel good about a lot of things I’ve been able to do. 

This article appears in the March 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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