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House getting serious about bolstering cybersecurity at vital port facilities

( An annual intelligence authorization act passed Tuesday by the House of Representatives would crack down on cyber-security at U.S. seaports, the latest step to alleviate growing concerns over terror attacks on the maritime industry.

Lawmakers voted 371-35 for the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2017, allowing funding for 16 different intelligence agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency.

But it is the new and revised policies in the bill that lawmakers are emphasizing. Specifically, the legislation would require, within six months of the bill becoming law, reports from intelligence officials on cyber-security at the 360 commercial ports in the U.S., as well as how information is being shared among federal agencies.

“America would be left defenseless without robust intelligence,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement issued after the vote. “Terrorist plots are stopped, enemy leaders are targeted, and America is protected because of the invaluable information gathered by our intelligence community.”

The legislation is a follow-up to a bill passed by the House in December written by Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who is a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Torres noted that $1.3 trillion in cargo passes through U.S. ports each year;  yet, a committee hearing last October found that the ports were vulnerable to cyber threats as more and more cargo is transferred from ships to trucks and railroads through automation, without as much direct human involvement and oversight.

Even worse, committee members said the October hearing revealed that the intelligence community was doing a poor job of communicating and disseminating information among its various agencies.

“There appears to currently be little coordination between port landlords and tenants in addressing cyber threats, and federal agencies have only recently started to consider the impact that a cyber attack could pose to our maritime infrastructure,” Torres said.

Even before Tuesday’s vote, the authorization act had demonstrated strong bipartisan support, after easily passing the intelligence panel on April 29. Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, co-sponsored the bill and said it “ensures that Congress has the means to conduct vigorous oversight over the intelligence community’s activities.”

The act would compel a top Homeland Security official to report to the Director of National Intelligence as well as the House and Senate intelligence committees on cyber threats and vulnerabilities, as well as any recent attacks or attempts and how various ports are defending against them.

Besides port cyber-security, the act also increases congressional oversight over the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board by restricting its use of funds to those specifically authorized by Congress in a particular year and requiring regular reports to congressional committees.

The board was recommended by the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 and was established by Congress that same year; it is an independent agency within the executive branch tasked with advising the president and other senior officials on matters of privacy.

Other policy revisions in the bill would declassify terrorist activities of detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that were committed before their capture. Another policy change would require the office of Director of National Intelligence to publish online “a list of all logos, symbols, insignia, and other markings commonly associated with, or adopted by” organizations that have been determined by the State Department to be foreign terrorist groups.

A companion bill to the intelligence act has not yet been unveiled in the Senate, but the upper chamber is considering the National Defense Authorization Act this week and is expected to soon take up Appropriations bills.

Reporting by J. Taylor Rushing, AMI Newswire.

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