|Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) says he is looking to shine a bipartisan spotlight on cybersecurity concerns as the newly appointed ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
In discussing his plans with The Hill ahead of the committee’s first cybersecurity hearing of the year, Katko emphasized the need to hit the ground running on issues like the widespread breach of the federal government by Russian hackers and broader federal cybersecurity initiatives.
“What I would really like to establish … is to get people’s attention that cybersecurity is probably the preeminent threat to our national security right now and homeland security,” Katko told The Hill on Tuesday. “It’s the new, real threat to this country.”
Katko previously served as ranking member of the committee’s cybersecurity panel, and took over the top Republican post from Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) in December.
Cybersecurity has been a key priority for Katko since arriving in Washington six years ago, and he plans to highlight his deep concerns about the nation’s cybersecurity posture during Wednesday’s hearing, which will feature testimony from former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs.
“Cybersecurity remains an area of great bipartisan cooperation in Congress,” Katko plans to say in his opening statement. “The cybersecurity resilience of our great nation leaves undeniable room for improvement. The bottom line is we are still struggling against both the highly sophisticated and the routine. We can do better. We must do better.”
Katko’s focus on responding to cyber threats in his new position comes at a time when the U.S. is facing multiple major security challenges.
The federal government is struggling to understand the scope and extent of the Russian hack of IT group SolarWinds, and potentially several other groups, that led to the compromise of agencies including the Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State and Treasury departments.
Cyberattacks against hospitals and schools from both foreign actors and cyber criminals have also become an increasing problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week, vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure were highlighted when a hacker breached and unsuccessfully attempted to poison the water supply in Oldsmar, Fla.
Katko emphasized to The Hill on Tuesday that Congress must stand firm and take a hard line against these types of attacks in cyberspace, particularly against foreign adversaries.
“The only thing bad guys understand is strength,” Katko said. “With Russia and China, we have to project strength, and you cannot project strength if you have something like SolarWinds happen and there’s not severe sanctions and a severe reaction to it. We need to work across the legislative and executive branches to have a coordinated response.”
He also detailed his concerns about ransomware attacks on schools and hospitals, which have held hostage the critical networks of groups in his district along with those across the nation. Katko called for a “whole of government response” to the problem, and said legislation he intended to introduce would address those problems.
“A lot of these places, schools in particular, are very antiquated systems that are a joy for hackers to get into,” Katko said. “Ransomware attacks continue to be successful until the business model is disrupted … it’s not easy, but we’ve got to do more than we’re doing now.”
In responding to these threats, Katko plans to prioritize funding and support for CISA, which he described as the “quarterback” in tackling threats to both the federal government and the nation’s critical infrastructure.
“You’ve got to pay that quarterback handsomely in order to make sure that they can get quality people,” Katko said. “They are a bit overwhelmed because the problem they have is monumental. This is what I would consider the modern day arms race, and China and Russia are badly outspending us.”
CISA, established in 2018, has been without Senate-confirmed leadership since November, when Krebs was fired by former President Trump and other leaders were pressured to step down by the Trump administration.
These moves came after CISA established a “rumor control” site to counter election disinformation and misinformation, and after it signed on to a joint statement with election officials describing the 2020 election as the “most secure in American history.”
Acting CISA Director Brandon Wales said earlier this month that the agency was reevaluating its efforts in the disinformation space following the 2020 election cycle.
While Katko emphasized the need for both Congress and CISA to continue to focus on election security issues — including increasing the use of paper back-up ballots and increasing funding for states to purchase updated equipment — he echoed Wales’s comments on CISA moving away from the disinformation space.
“I think the farther away we get from making sure that the infrastructure for elections is sound, the more people can justifiably question CISA’s role in that,” Katko said. “To me, CISA’s core mission in the election security realm has got to be making sure that the infrastructure is in solid and secure.”
In addressing both domestic and international cyber threats, Katko is joined by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
Thompson told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he hoped to use the committee’s first cybersecurity-focused hearing to discuss the “bipartisan endeavor” of “making cyberspace more secure and networks more resilient.”
Katko told The Hill that he and Thompson were on “the same page” in regards to the urgent need to respond to cyber threats. He stressed that bipartisan efforts on cybersecurity were crucial.
“I do not think we will be successful as a committee unless we continue to do what we’ve already started out doing, that is working in a bipartisan manner on the cybersecurity issues,” Katko said. “It deserves a completely American, bipartisan approach and response.”