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US Congress whips up ‘cyber menace’ again

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Declaring "cyberterrorism" a growing threat to national security, US Representatives James Saxton (Republican, New Jersey) and Saxby Chambliss (Republican, Georgia) introduced legislation this week calling for a revised legal framework for prosecuting terrorist hackers, and renewed public-private sector cooperation in combating the "cyber menace."

House concurrent resolution twenty-two declares cyberterrorism to be "an emerging threat to the national security of the United States which has the potentiality to cause great harm to the Nation's critical electronic infrastructure."

Saxton and Chambliss call for federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct a new study of cyberterrorists, defined as computer-savvy terrorist groups determined to crack American computer networks and sabotage critical infrastructures like banking and finance, energy production and distribution, transportation, and national defence.

If passed, the resolution would not put new laws on the books, but would establish a largely symbolic "sense of Congress" that cyberterrorists are real, and that new laws are needed to punish them.

But belief that terrorists are turning to hacking is not universally held, even among relatively hawkish insiders. Speaking at a security conference last year, then-White House counter-terrorism Czar Richard Clarke said he believed that foreign governments could inflict grave damage on US infrastructures electronically, but that terrorist groups still prefer bombs to modems.

"I don't know what a 'cyberterrorist' is," Clarke said. "We have not found a terrorist group engaged in computer attacks on the United States. We haven't even found one preparing for computer attacks on the United States."

The legislation comes amid renewed interest in hi-tech terrorism, sparked by a USA Today report Tuesday that mid-East extremist Osama bin Laden uses e-mail and encryption in planning terrorist attacks.

The preamble of the resolution also supports continued funding for the Clinton administration's cyber security programs, including the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Centre (NIPC), and the Commerce Department's Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, and it endorses Clinton's 2000 "National Plan for Information Systems Protection."

An identical resolution stalled in committee last year.

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