A House subcommittee chairman on Thursday called the nation's preparations to defend against an attack on its computer networks "simply not acceptable" and vowed to offer legislation by the end of the year mandating computer-security standards for the private sector.
Florida Republican Adam Putnam, chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology offered that criticism at an e-government conference jointly sponsored by the Business Software Alliance and Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Texas Republican Pete Sessions, vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cyber Security, and Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democrat on that panel, echoed Putnam's point. They also said key immigration databases are not networked, leaving the nation vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists.
"We want to begin the [legislative] process before a major disaster happens," Putnam said. The bills on the issue will be "a meaningful approach to securing cyber architecture."
Putnam said he came to the issue with an open mind and was not predisposed toward "knee-jerk regulation." But he said the consistent failure of businesses to secure their networks warrants congressional action. "It is incumbent on the private sector to get their house in order," he said.
He also criticized the Bush administration and Congress for not taking the issue seriously. "There's a lack of attention and understanding by Congress and the administration as to the serious nature of the threat," he said. "It's not as sexy or engaging as protecting against the terrorist threat to airplanes or the Brooklyn Bridge."
He reserved special criticism for the security of federal computer networks, noting that all of them had failed annual security audits. "As much as I place blame on the federal government, much of the blame is due Congress," he said. "We are not exercising the level of oversight that we should have" over the government's technology purchases and security operations.
Lofgren and Sessions said their committee will hold hearings during the next weeks to take testimony from private-sector computer-security experts.
"I think many aspects of the government related to security are in the dark ages," Lofgren said. "Until we get technology deployed in the immigration area, we will be highly vulnerable." A "watch list" of potential terrorists has not been deployed, she added, and 100 key immigration databases cannot communicate with each other.
She noted that confusion about immigration policy has kept out the United States foreign students who otherwise will pursue higher education in Europe.
"Fifty-three percent of the universities in America reported that foreign students missed their first semester due to immigration problems," she said. "We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we allow the best minds in the world to go to Germany or France instead."
"It was inconceivable to me that 10 weeks after the [Sept. 11, 2001,] attacks the government admitted for citizenship two of the terrorists who were on those planes," Sessions added. That showed that on the issue of security, government was "completely asleep at the wheel."