Government, Congress Eye “Cyber Attack” As Perfect Pretext For Martial Law, May Need One Before 2012 Elections

Friday, June 18, 2010
By Paul Martin

Govt, Congress eye greater power in cyber attacks

WASHINGTON — The government may have to take “extraordinary measures” in responding to a cyber attack that affects critical public or privately-run computer networks, a senior Homeland Security official said.

National Cyber Security Center director Phil Reitinger said Congress should work with the administration to determine if new presidential emergency powers are needed to govern how key industries such as power plants, the electrical grid and vital financial systems respond during a cyber crisis.

A key Senate committee is proposing the president have more specific authority over how major industries react. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said those powers could include the ability to require companies to install a computer patch or block particular Internet traffic.

U.S. officials are struggling to beef up the nation’s cyber security, as federal computer networks are being scanned and attacked millions of times a day by hackers, cyber terrorists and criminals seeking to steal sensitive data or disrupt and destroy vital operations.

While no one argues with the severity of the threat, lawmakers are divided over how big a role the government should play, and which federal agency should be in charge. In the middle are industry leaders who argue that private companies can often do a better job than the federal government in protecting their systems and ensuring their staffs are qualified.

In testimony prepared for a hearing in front of the Homeland panel Tuesday, Reitinger said the president already has certain emergency powers, so any adjustments should not overlap with existing law. The testimony was obtained by The Associated Press.

The legislation, he said, “recognizes that Americans expect the federal government to anticipate, prevent, and respond to cyber threats.” And, he said, the provisions relating to presidential powers “acknowledge that the government may need to take extraordinary measures to fulfill these responsibilities.”

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