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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4404) }}

What We're Following See More »
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
23 hours ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
1 days ago

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.