Could the next devastating terrorist attack on the United States be unleashed from cyberspace? Sen. Joe Lieberman is convinced it could.
He is working to make his last great legislative victory the approval of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which he says could prevent a cyber 9/11. He chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"I think this is maybe the last really significant contribution I could make to my country's future economic prosperity and national security," he told me during his recent visit to The Day.
Lieberman, who is not seeking re-election in November, talks in ominous terms about the potential damage that hackers could cause to vital computer networks.
"I fear that when it comes to protecting America from cyberattack it is September 10, 2001, and the question is whether we will confront this existential threat before it happens," Lieberman said on the Senate floor when he introduced the bill Feb. 14. "The system is blinking red, yet we fail to connect the dots - again."
The problem is two-fold, said Lieberman when he met with the Day's editorial board. Corporations are routinely seeing their ideas and product information stolen, allowing reproduction of products that should have pattern protection.
"Their systems are attacked from abroad, and this is all about stealing intellectual property, the kinds of designs for a product - some defense, some not, some just widgets, but high-tech widgets - stealing the designs and then taking them back to the home country. China I'm afraid is doing a lot of this," Lieberman told us.
The second threat is that a country or sophisticated terrorist group, or perhaps some combination thereof, will play havoc with critical systems. Among the scenarios envisioned are the opening of dam gates to flood communities, shutting down or damaging key assets such as refineries and sewer treatment systems, blacking out large swaths of the power grid and manipulating financial markets.
"I for one am not ready to cede this vital new frontier of cyberspace and the freedoms and economic opportunities that come with it to our enemies - the spies, the criminals and the terrorists who would hijack this tool of modernity and use it against us as surely as they would turn airliners into guided missiles," Lieberman told the Senate.
The act would grant new authority to the Department of Homeland Security to set cybersecurity performance requirements for organizations or companies responsible for critical infrastructure.
It would also set standards for network security in government computer systems. It calls for creating a clearinghouse in which industries and government agencies could securely and privately share information about cyber threats and the means of addressing them.
Known for his hawkish approach to national defense and foreign policy, Lieberman has had less success rallying support for his cybersecurity proposal. It does not appear to engender the same urgency as confronting traditional terrorist threats.
While the bill has bipartisan sponsorship, and Lieberman said he would like to think such a national security issue could get broad support even in a highly partisan Congress, it is not without its critics.
Congress had to abandon plans to crackdown on Internet piracy when major players on the web, including Google and Wikipedia, protested that the legislation would have damaged innovation and the free flow of information on the Internet.
Some are likewise concerned whether in the name of security the Cybersecurity Act and heavy-handed homeland security intervention will pose its own dangers to a freewheeling, entrepreneurial web.
To assuage such fears, the most recent version of the bill explicitly protects commercial software and hardware products from having to meet new security requirements simply because they are utilized in critical infrastructure systems or could be misused by hackers.
While there are disagreements as to how serious it is, the threat that cyberattacks could cause major problems appears real, but whether the concern about it is great enough for Sen. Lieberman to gain that last legislative victory remains uncertain.