The government shutdown increases the risk of a cyber attack against the U.S. because many workers who monitor threats have been furloughed, a lawmaker said.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, cited recent figures from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicating about 70 percent of the intelligence community's civilian employees took mandatory leaves of absence, known as furloughs, because of last week's shutdown.
"If somebody wanted to attack us, this a great time to launch an attack on the United States," the congresswoman said during a cybersecurity conference held Tuesday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and hosted by Politico. "The people who do these jobs are not working."
Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot who was critically injured in Iraq, was among several lawmakers who spoke at the event. More than a dozen speakers attended, including outside experts and Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command.
The Defense Department has since recalled the roughly 350,000 civilian employees who were furloughed last week, though it's unclear how many of those work at the National Security Agency. The move was expected to ease some of the economic pain of the shutdown, as the Pentagon accounted for almost half of the federal workers affected by the government closure.
Regardless, the Republicans and Democrats at the event weren't optimistic that leaders would act quickly to end the shutdown, which began Oct. 1 after Congress failed to pass a budget for fiscal 2014.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he would support an idea floated by moderate Republicans to pass a temporary, stop-gap funding measure known as a continuing resolution to reopen the government while negotiating a longer-term budget deal.
"We need to get these intelligence workers back to work," he said.
The Republican-controlled House has demanded that any legislation to temporarily fund the government include language to scale back President Obama’s signature health-care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. The Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House have opposed any such provision, resulting in the impasse.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the Chinese, Russians and Iranians are "licking their chops" at the thought of the U.S. taking a pause in cybersecurity activities.
A Chinese espionage group since 2006 has stolen hundreds of terabytes of information from at least 141 companies across 20 major industries, including aerospace and defense, according to a February report from Mandiant, a closely held company based in Alexandria, Va., that sells information-security services.
Lockheed and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. in 2011 had their networks disrupted after hackers gained codes to authenticating devices called RSA SecurID made by EMC Corp. (The tokens are also used by Military.com’s parent company, Monster Worldwide Inc.).
About two-thirds of notifications to companies of major network intrusions come from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Mandiant.
"That's one of the reasons why I'd like to see this resolved," he said.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, acknowledged the political gridlock on Capitol Hill over the budget is "sucking the oxygen out of the room" when it comes to other important legislative issues, including cybersecurity.
"It's unfortunate this town drives by crisis," he said. "It will take a cyber event of enormous proportions ... before Congress acts."
The Pentagon requested $4.7 billion for so-called cyberspace operations in 2014, a 21-percent increase from the previous year. Without a budget, however, the funding isn't guaranteed.
Alexander, the general, said the shutdown is hurting the morale of the National Security Agency workforce, which includes almost 1,000 individuals with doctorate degrees, more than 1,000 mathematicians and more than 4,000 computer scientists.
"We're making it hard for them to stay with the government," he said.
Alexander also criticized what he called "sensational" reports about National Security Agency surveillance programs disclosed by former Pentagon contractor Edward Snowden, who received temporary asylum in Russia after fleeing the U.S. and Taiwan.
To track suspected terrorists, the government collects telephone metadata such as the date and time of a number called -- not recordings of conversations, Alexander said.
"We made a commitment that 9/11 would never happen again," he said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "One of the reasons it happened is because we didn't have a database like this. We didn't have a repository that would allow us to connect the dots."