The United States is well behind the curve in the fight against computer criminals, Sen. Joe Lieberman said Friday, as Homeland Security officials opened a $9 million operations center to better coordinate the government's response to cyberattacks.
Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said legislation being drafted by his committee will require federal agencies and private companies to set up a system to share information on cyberthreats.
And Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said the Homeland Security Department must identify weaknesses in the systems that run power plants and other critical infrastructure.
As Lieberman laid out his proposal to Chamber of Commerce executives, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano unveiled the new National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in northern Virginia.
Standing in front of a wall of broad video screens, that displayed vivid charts and maps of possible cyberthreats and suspicious Internet traffic, Napolitano said the watch center will allow the high-tech teams that monitor government networks to work better together.
With 61 computer stations spread across the room, the center will merge the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team and the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications.
U.S. officials have said that government computer systems are probed or scanned millions of times a day, and face an increasing threat from hackers, cybercriminals looking to steal money or information, and nation-states aimed at espionage or the destruction of networks that run vital services.
Officials have called for a more coordinated effort by the federal government to monitor and protect U.S. systems and work with the private sector to insure that transportation systems, energy plants and other sensitive networks are equally protected.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the homeland security panel, said it will take more than a White House coordinator to secure the country's networks. And she pointed to the National Counterterrorism Center, which brings agencies together to assess terrorism data, as a good model for cyber coordination.
Napolitano told a crowd of federal workers and others at the new watch center that consolidating the cyberefforts will improve the government's ability to counter threats.
Over time, the center — which will operate 24 hours a day — will also include the National Cybersecurity Center, which coordinates operations among the six largest federal cybercenters; the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis and representatives from the private sector.
President Barack Obama has declared computer security a priority, but he has been struggling for several months to appoint a new cybercoordinator. Several executives have turned it down, and critics and cyberexperts say it is a nearly impossible job to fill.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Obama is "personally committed to finding the right person for this job, and a rigorous selection process is well under way."
Lawmakers say the new coordinator, who Obama said would report to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, must be subject to Senate confirmation. The White House plan for the new policy adviser does not call for Senate confirmation because the person would be coordinating not unilaterally directing federal activities, Shapiro said.
Christopher Painter is currently serving as the acting senior director for cybersecurity in the White House.