WASHINGTON — With the threat of cyber attacks fresh on the minds of members of Congress, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is considering setting up a select committee on cyber issues.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told an audience Wednesday that he is weighing such a move because of what he called a growing threat from cyber attacks, such as the one that struck the Office of Personnel Management earlier this year.
"We actually have done almost nothing in the area of cyber in the Pentagon," McCain said. "I intend to really focus a lot of the attention of the committee on the issue of cyber, and have been playing around with the idea of maybe we need a select committee.
"I'm not big on select committees, a lot of times they are a waste of time," McCain added. "But when you look at the areas that cyber impacts in our economy … there is at least six committees that have some kind of oversight responsibilities."
Select committees are formed to focus on specific issues in greater detail than otherwise may be possible. In the Senate, there are currently two select committees, focused respectively on intelligence and ethics. The House has the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and one focused on the 2012 Benghazi attack.
McCain later said it was not an issue of people or leadership that is holding back the US, but rather a lack of what he described as a clear policy on how the US responds to cyber threats.
"Is it the United States' policy to play pure defense in cyber attacks? Is it the United States' policy to launch preemptive attacks when we know that they are out there surfing the internet and trying to penetrate? Is it our policy to retaliate? [Are] the cyber attacks acts of war?," the chairman asked rhetorically.
"I think you could make an argument that an attack that cripples parts of our economy could be interpreted by many experts as acts of war, and if they are acts of war, [so] what is the United States policy and strategy there? We haven't got that and that needs to be established," he concluded.
McCain then indicated that he would like to see greater response to nations like China and Russia when they strike against the US. China has been fingered by US officials as the culprit for the OPM hack.
"I am told that our potential adversaries, particularly Russia and China, are becoming more aggressive. I would argue that maybe one of the reasons they are more and more aggressive is they pay no price," he said. "They pay no price for their behavior. And it seems to be we should be at least contemplating that course of action, but that hasn't been decided."
A new cyber strategy rolled out by the Pentagon on April 23 — the first such update since 2011 — attempted to tackle some of those concerns, in particular the issue of how to respond to a cyber attack.
The strategy also focused heavily on the issue of cyber deterrence,
Complicating the cyber issue — and national security programs as a whole — are the revelations from Edward Snowden and others about the global surveillance efforts run by the US government, McCain acknowledged.
The discussion about privacy vs. national security continues to be one the American public, and Congress, wrestles with.
"There has got to be a definition of what our mission is and what our parameters are," he said. "We will spend more time on this issue of privacy vs national security than almost any issue I can think of."