Jun 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senate sergeant-at-arms: Cyber attack against Congress "keeps me up at night"

Karen Gibson, Senate sergeant-at-arms, speaking during a Senate subcommittee hearing during April 2021.
Karen Gibson, Senate sergeant-at-arms, speaking during a Senate subcommittee hearing during April 2021. Photo: Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Karen Gibson told CNN she fears a cyber attack against Congress more than violence at the Capitol similar to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Why it matters: Gibson said Friday that hackers attempt intrusions into Congress' computer networks "every single day" and that a state-backed cyber unit could cripple the government's ability to function by compromising communications networks.

Context: Gibson replaced the previous Senate sergeant-at-arms, Michael Stenger, after he resigned in the wake of the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol.

What they're saying: "I worry a lot more about cybersecurity than I do about another mob attacking the Capitol. Certainly our networks are, have attempted intrusions every single day," Gibson said.

  • "And so cyber security for me is a much greater concern than the prospect of thousands of people storming the West Terrace," she added.
  • "I've often thought of that as sort of the soft underbelly of America — the critical infrastructure that's in private sector hands, and may or may not be secured to the extent that we needed to be, as we saw, perhaps, with the Colonial Pipeline ransomware incident."
  • "There are many opportunities for those who wish us harm to do so, in a cyber domain. It's certainly going to keep the cybersecurity staff very busy for the foreseeable future."
  • "But I would worry about, I think, nation-state actors or others who might try to just really cripple the government's ability to function by locking down cyber communications network."

The big picture: Multiple federal agencies were breached during the massive SolarWinds attack by Russian-backed hackers that became public in December 2020. The full extent of that attack is still unknown.

  • Numerous U.S. businesses have been targets of cyber attacks this year, including two major ransomware attacks in the last month.
  • FBI Director Christopher Wray compared malware attacks against the government and businesses to the challenges posed by the Sept. 11 attacks in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Biden administration has urged businesses to take "immediate steps" to increase their ransomware defenses, while the Department of Justice is now treating ransomware attacks with a similar priority as terrorism cases.
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