Obama’s Free to Bomb Syria but Is Limited on Cybersecurity

The logjam over protecting the nation’s computer infrastructure and a new report show the limits of presidential power.

Vanishing medium? Obama's 17-minute ad refreshingly positive.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
Aug. 28, 2013, 2 a.m.

As Pres­id­ent Obama read­ies to strike the Syr­i­an re­gime, it’s worth think­ing about that oth­er de­fense prob­lem—cy­ber­se­cur­ity—and what it says about Wash­ing­ton in the Obama era.

On Wed­nes­day, the cap­it­al will be con­sumed by the March on Wash­ing­ton, as well it ought, and the loom­ing battle with Syr­ia—al­though not at the same time, for surely the mis­siles won’t fly at the very mo­ment Obama sa­lutes non­vi­ol­ence.

But the coun­try’s ef­forts to beef up cy­ber­se­cur­ity are sty­mied, even after thefts at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency and the Army have made Ed­ward Snowden and Chelsea (nee Brad­ley) Man­ning em­blems of com­puter vul­ner­ab­il­ity. This week shows why.

On Wed­nes­day, while the march­ers march and the Pentagon plans, a fed­er­al agency in Mary­land called the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Stand­ards and Tech­no­logy will be is­su­ing a draft re­port for cy­ber­se­cur­ity stand­ards—ba­sic­ally a list of best prac­tices for busi­nesses and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions to fol­low as they try to pro­tect their net­works.

NIST, as it’s called, is the much-ad­mired sci­entif­ic agency that runs the atom­ic clock and comes up with stand­ards for everything from weights and meas­ures to med­ic­al devices. It doesn’t reg­u­late, but it’s been around in some form since the early days of the Re­pub­lic and its word is listened to closely by in­dustry and gov­ern­ment.

For the last three years, Con­gress has been un­able to come up with a cy­ber­se­cur­ity bill that the pres­id­ent could sign. And to be fair, it’s been over hon­est dis­agree­ments rather than raw ob­struc­tion­ism, such as fili­buster ab­use. The House has passed a bill with over­whelm­ing GOP sup­port and a con­sid­er­able num­ber of Demo­crats that would en­able in­form­a­tion shar­ing between com­pan­ies and the gov­ern­ment in an ef­fort to shut down hack­ers. Op­pon­ents on the left and right have offered up civil-liber­ties ar­gu­ments, say­ing that’s a li­cense to ab­use private data. Throw in some clas­sic ques­tions about cor­por­ate li­ab­il­ity and you have a stale­mate—but at least the old-fash­ioned kind built around ideas (and lob­by­ing of course), rather than gun-to-the-head threats like the debt ceil­ing.

The cy­ber stale­ment is why the pres­id­ent is­sued an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der earli­er this year ask­ing NIST to come up with a vol­un­tary frame­work for re­du­cing cy­ber risks to crit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture. (His or­der also opened up more in­form­a­tion shar­ing in the gov­ern­ment.) And so the agency’s worked di­li­gently on it and will is­sue best prac­tices to­mor­row. But while they would cer­tainly im­prove se­cur­ity if ac­ted on, none of them are likely to provide the de­gree of pro­tec­tion that can only be af­forded by le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion, nor does any­one ex­pect them to. One in­sider calls them “no brain­ers,” liken­ing them to use-a-se­cure-pass­word brom­ides. (You can read more about where NIST is plan­ning here and about the le­gis­lat­ive stale­mate here.) Wheth­er you be­lieve in the House bill’s in­form­a­tion-shar­ing ap­proach or a heav­ier reg­u­lat­ory re­gime, every­one’s pretty much agreed that NIST isn’t enough.

And this is where it comes back to Obama. For those who think a pres­id­ent has ex­traordin­ary ex­ec­ut­ive powers to lead, here’s a case where he’s pretty much tapped out. The prob­lem is grave enough that Con­gress may even­tu­ally give the pres­id­ent something that he’s will­ing to sign. Un­til then this is about the best he can do—a con­spicu­ous lim­it­a­tion of pres­id­en­tial power in a week where he’s likely to flex his strongest muscles by mak­ing speeches and mak­ing war.

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