Republicans’ priorities askew
And down it crashed.
Not the nation’s electrical grid – not yet anyway – but rather legislation intended to protect it and other vital U.S. infrastructure from cyberattacks by hackers or terrorists.
Republican senators, along with a handful of Democrats, voted to keep the Cybersecurity Act from reaching a vote, imploding its chance of passage this year. The bill had been a top priority of the Obama administration.
It’s more evidence of the prime directive of the GOP: Ask not what you can do for your country; just focus on getting Obama out of the White House.
In this case, they’ve really got their priorities backward. They are putting loyalty to political party and lobbyists first, and loyalty to their country and its security second.
For years, cyberterrorism experts have warned about the potential for an attack to the nation’s electrical grids, nuclear power plants, water supply, dams and transportation systems. Luckily, no such attacks have come to fruition.
Nevertheless, we’ve gotten some hints of what could happen if cybersecurity is not addressed. If Wikileaks’ exploits at purloining and posting highly sensitive and secret information aren’t a convincing enough argument for better security measures, consider the recent headlines out of India.
That country, racked for years by a substandard electrical grid for its massive population, ground to a halt when its system imploded. According to some reports, a mitigating factor was that many Indians are used to power interruptions. Now imagine what might happen if New York suddenly went powerless; ponder the potential loss of life that could occur if air traffic control systems went haywire.
Efforts to pass mandatory security measures began in 2009, and from the start such proposals invited the opposition of various interested parties. Civil liberties organizations and groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the law on the grounds that it would compromise the freedoms and privacy of Internet users, service providers and website operators.
Business interests were wary as well. Many elements of the nation’s infrastructure are privately owned (think your local utility companies and telecommunications firms). Those companies were not thrilled with the idea of the government forcing them to share information on security threats and breaches, and at the possibility of more bureaucratic policies to follow.
All are legitimate concerns. But they are trumped by national security. One might expect, or at least hope, that leaders from both parties would recognize this compelling national interest and find a way to work out differences. In fact, the sponsors of the bill, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, the independent chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, did just that. They consented to several privacy-oriented changes, including one that gives citizens the right to sue the government if it intentionally or willfully violates the law.
But that was not enough. The White House issued a statement with this lament: “The politics of obstructionism, driven by special interest groups seeking to avoid accountability, prevented Congress from passing legislation to better protect our nation from potentially catastrophic cyber attacks.”
That about sums it up.
Here’s the problem: Doing nothing to protect our nation from cyberattacks is not an option. I hesitate to invoke doomsday scenarios here, but fate is being tempted with such blindly partisan maneuvers.
The Republican Party has been tacking hard to the right. Its posturing on national security, particularly under the influence of the tea party faction, is at best only about one thing – defeating Barack Obama – and at worst a horror show of conspiracy theory and crazy talk.
So the Republicans have denied the president a “victory.” Bully for them! But once the election is over, they had better grow up and get down to the business of protecting America.
If the nation is ever hobbled by a major attack to its infrastructure, they will rue the day they played politics with national security.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion page columnist for the Kansas City Star. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.