Congressional lawmakers are waiting on the White House to chart a path forward on cybersecurity.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), who heads the subcommittee with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and infrastructure protection efforts, wants to prioritize bolstering the department’s cyber workforce and improving cyber information sharing with the private sector in the new Congress.
But the subcommittee’s agenda will be subject to change depending on the Trump administration’s plans for cybersecurity, which have been largely up in the air since a planned executive order was tabled at the end of January, Ratcliffe said in an interview with The Hill in his Capitol Hill office on Tuesday.
“We very much want to be a willing, supportive partner for what we hope is going to be a bold agenda with regard to cybersecurity by this administration,” Ratcliffe said.
“Depending on what we see from them, some of those priorities could get shuffled or adjusted, magnified, or there could be additions to those.”
This week brought rumblings that President Trump may sign the cybersecurity executive order on Friday, three months after its initial delay. White House cybersecurity coordinator Rob Joyce said it was “close and nearby” at a conference in Washington on Monday.
Drafts of the executive order have been circulating as the White House has solicited feedback from industry leaders and others.
Ratcliffe offered a broad picture of his plans for the committee this Congress. He hopes to focus on overseeing the implementation of a cybersecurity information sharing law passed in 2015 and attracting top cyber talent to the Homeland Security Department, though he acknowledged that these will be subject to “revision and redirection” depending on the concrete stipulations of the executive order.
The full Homeland Security Committee is also waiting on the new administration to get feedback on draft legislation that would reorganize DHS’s cyber efforts — a high priority of Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
The administration has made some key moves on cybersecurity, bringing on Joyce to coordinate the federal government’s cyber policy efforts and signaling that federal network protection and IT modernization will be a priority.
Still, there have been few details about how the administration will move forward on cybersecurity. Trump also missed his self-imposed deadline to produce a plan to stop hackers, which opened him up to criticism last week.
Other efforts — including border security and tax reform — have seemed to take precedence.
Ratcliffe said that cyber represents the greatest threat to the nation moving forward — larger than that posed by undocumented immigrants.
“There’s been so much focus from a national security perspective [on] securing our borders and obviously the attention of building a wall at our southern border is something that helped candidate Trump become President Trump,” Ratcliffe said.
“But very clearly, it would be hard for anyone to argue anything other than the fact that Americans are at far greater risk from attacks through our digital borders than they are from anyone coming across the Rio Grande river.”
Ratcliffe said that he’s been encouraged — for the most part — by the initial steps the administration has taken on cyber. However, he like other lawmakers on the committee, expressed concern over early indications that Trump would direct the Pentagon to take the lead on the government’s cybersecurity efforts.
“I don’t want to get too far out on a limb, but I’m optimistic that [the executive order is] headed in the right direction because I think they have brought in some good folks like Rob Joyce and others that are advising on cybersecurity issues, and I think that it will mesh well with the priorities we’ve established and where we think DHS should go,” Ratcliffe told The Hill.
“I think there’s less concern now that somehow DHS’s role is going to be hijacked in any respect by [the Department of Defense] or by other federal agencies,” he said. “I think that DHS will be encouraged to do what it is authorized in the law to do and hopefully supported in that respect.”
When it comes to the delay in the executive order, Ratcliffe is giving the new administration the benefit of the doubt.
“I would like to think that maybe they’re being a little more careful and not getting out over their skies too far,” he said. “Some of the executive orders they’ve pushed out quickly have famously now been pulled back and revised.”
Congressional efforts on cyber have lately been clouded by Russia’s interference in the presidential election, a matter that has become taboo for Trump and Republicans as the FBI probes whether there was any coordination between members of Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Ratcliffe hopes that the uproar surrounding Russia’s election interference does not compromise lawmakers’ willingness to reach across the political aisle to legislate on cyber.
For his part, Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney who was first elected in 2014, has joined with Democrats to push for legislation to help state and local officials fight cyber crime and boost cyber cooperation between the United States and Israel.
A bill he introduced last month that would for the first time authorize a federally funded digital forensics training center in Hoover, Ala., already has a bipartisan set of cosponsors in the Senate in Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, respectively.
“It does seem to be an area that is less contaminated by partisanship, and I think that there’s a great appreciation for the growing threat that it is,” Ratcliffe said.
“I’m hoping that the events involving Russia which have become very partisan don’t contaminate our ability to be legislating effectively — and by effectively, I mean in a bipartisan way.”