The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion U.S. cybersecurity deficiencies can no longer be ignored

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 7. (Al Drago/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Rarely has a bipartisan commission produced its findings immediately before the allocation of trillions of dollars in the service of national rehabilitation. The timing of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s report this spring could not have been more perfect. Also fortuitous are the profiles of the commission’s co-chairs: Angus King, Maine’s center-left governor-turned-senator; and Mike Gallagher, a center-right scholar and Marine who represents Wisconsin’s 8th District in the U.S. House. The pair radiate goodwill and seriousness of purpose, a mix that recalls eras when politics did indeed stop at the water’s edge.

Despite its roster of accomplished members and senior staff — including Rear Adm. Mark “Monty” Montgomery, a much-respected Pentagon veteran — the commission has had a hard time gaining public attention amid the chaos of the pandemic and the political upheavals of the “Trump era.” (Gallagher — affectionately dubbed “China Mike” by Robert C. O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, when Gallagher was left off the list of elected “China hawks” that the Chinese Communist Party recently threatened with sanctions — discussed the commission’s work with me on air last week.)

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What, many readers may be wondering, is a “solarium”?

The Roman Catholic Church long invested particular gatherings of bishops with special status and expansive authority by conferring on their meetings the title of “synod.” As the Cold War took hold, President Dwight Eisenhower couldn’t convene a synod of bishops to help him puzzle through the postwar world that had fallen under the rule, or shadow, of Joseph Stalin. He needed a different signifier of importance.

So Ike convened Project Solarium in 1953, inviting the capital’s “wise men” to meet and strategize in the White House solarium to fashion a national policy addressing the Soviet threat. (How they did so is chronicled in the classic “The Wise Men,” by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas.) The work of this renowned group, which included Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and famed diplomat George Kennan, ranks as probably the second-greatest collaborative effort by intellectuals in U.S. history, after the gathering in Philadelphia in 1787. Certainly, Project Solarium laid the foundation for U.S. success in the Cold War, though the final collapse of Stalin’s heirs would also require Richard Nixon’s breakthrough in China and Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup and, in particular, Reagan’s unwavering commitment to missile defense.

Now, Nixon’s contribution to that victory — a powerful regime in Beijing, so necessary to causing Moscow’s to tumble — has turned on the West. China is the source of the virus that swiftly devastated economies across the planet and that has taken more than 300,000 lives with no end in sight. The Chinese Communist Party has long used dark methods in cyberspace to pilfer from and punish opponents. Similar tactics have been adopted by other regimes, including the remnants of the Moscow menace vanquished in 1989, the mullahs who ascended in Tehran in 1979, and various rogues and rogue states of far less power.

So obvious had these invisible cyberthreats become that the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 established the commission to “develop a consensus on a strategic approach to defending the United States in cyberspace against cyber attacks of significant consequences.”

Virus-caused crises obscure the urgency of addressing piecemeal U.S. defenses in the virtual world. (Some would say “nearly nonexistent" but for the robust vigilance of farsighted specialists in the intelligence community and at the Pentagon.)

As Congress prepares to aid the states, and considers reforms to protect the private sector from pandemic-related lawsuits, an additional condition and another enormous appropriation must be enacted: States should be obliged to modernize and coordinate their cyberdefense according to the national standards dictated by the commission and its successor authority. When America stands back up, it must do so prepared at least for a different kind of battle.

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Will Congress take seriously the recommendations of the commission it established? Co-chairman King caucuses with Senate Democrats and is widely admired for his intelligence and temperament. His counterpart, Gallagher, has standing in House GOP circles. House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney is a national security expert favorable to the commission’s focus and enjoys the trust of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise. Cheney’s expertise and influence can help keep the spotlight on Gallagher’s work with King and colleagues. Together, the co-chairs could conceivably use the “phase four” pandemic rescue bill to urgently shift a cyberdefense breakthrough to the top of the nation’s rebuilding priorities. A separate “title” of this bill devoted to the solarium would be a monument to bipartisan cooperation and a much-needed starting gun for the race to cybersecurity.

A staggered United States is a target on multiple fronts. The commission’s report details vulnerabilities in shocking specifics. If phase-four emergency relief includes funding and coordination of a national cyberdefense strategy, the second solarium project will prove as valuable as the first.

Read more:

Jane Holl Lute and Peter J. Beshar: Now is the perfect time for a cyberattack. Here’s how to stop one.

Allison Peters and Ishan Mehta: This is not the time to leave our hospitals unprotected against cyberattacks

David Ignatius: We weren’t ready for a pandemic. We better be ready for a cyberattack.

Josh Rogin: It’s time to take off the gloves against Chinese cybercrime

Hugh Hewitt: The next phase of relief is going to be the law of a lifetime