Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the outgoing chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and likely top Republican on the next Foreign Affairs Committee, said he will look to push for electrical grid security reforms and the formation of an international cyber doctrine in the face of growing threats from nation-state actors.
McCaul told attendees at a Bloomberg event last week he expects the bipartisan attitude towards cyber to continue into the next Congress, which he said is critical for legislation needed to improve the ability to protect grid infrastructure from a potential large-scale cyber attack.
“The good news is that most of the issues we dealt with on the committee were bipartisan. In cyber, it’s not in the future anymore. It’s here and now,” McCaul said. “People say what keeps you up at night, it would be an attack on the power grid in the Northeast that’s so interdependent. It would be [an attack] crashing our financial institutions.”
Power infrastructure in the Northeast remains a concern for the Homeland Security committee, according to McCaul, and he expects the panel to look into sectioning portions of the grid so a potential cyber attack wouldn’t wipe electricity down the entire coast.
“It needs to be sectioned off, so if you hit one part of it the rest of its doesn’t go down,” McCaul said. “We know, from intelligence officials, that Russian and Chinese have their fingerprints in it, which means they have the power potentially to turn it off.”
House lawmakers have previously asked for greater investigation in existing grid vulnerabilities and investigations into the pressing threats to electrical infrastructure (Defense Daily, July 10).
McCaul said his time steering the committee was focused on improving the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to assist against threats such grid cyber attacks. He cited the recently passed bill to elevate DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (Defense Daily, Nov. 14) as a sign of moving in that direction.
“I’ve spent my entire tenure as chairman trying to both define the role of DHS in cyber and then bolster their capability. And CISA, which I like to call the cyber security agency bill, will elevate this office…to a higher level within the federal government so it gives them both respect, prioritizes the mission, elevates the office and raises their capability,” McCaul said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the panel’s top Democrat, is expected to take over leadership of the committee. Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) is slated to become the new ranking member.
McCaul is readying for a role as the top Republican on the Foreign Affair committee where he said he expects to join new chairman Democrat Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in pushing for an international cyber doctrine and addressing the State Department’s role in digital diplomacy.
“I think we have to look at this differently and international norms and standards need to change, such that if you do a cyber attack on the United States you’re going to get hit back with just as strong of a cyber effect,” McCaul said.
A defined international doctrine is needed as the consequences of cyber actions begin to resonate like the effects of a physical attack, according to McCaul, who said it would outline how a response to digital warfare would fit with in NATO’s Article 5 provision.
McCaul said the committee also has to address the State Department’s shifting role toward digital diplomacy, which faced congressional pushback following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to shutter the agency’s top cyber office (Defense Daily, Jan. 17).
“I’d like to elevate the role of cyber security within the State Department. As we’ve talked about the international players out there, I think that’s going to be a real important point,” McCaul said.