WASHINGTON -- The Whited House on Wednesday offered to help U.S. businesses protect their computer systems from cyberattacks that President Barack Obama called "one the gravest national security dangers that the United States faces."
Administration officials warned during an event at the White House that an attack on critical sectors of the U.S. economy could put the entire country at risk.
"It boils down to this -- in cybersecurity, the more systems we secure, the more secure we all are," said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. "We are all connected online and a vulnerability in one place can cause a problem in many other places."
The administration released a 39-page guide urging vital industries like transportation, financial, health care and energy to assess their risk and take action to close gaps. The Homeland Security Department also launched a voluntary program for businesses to get help at no cost from its cybersecurity experts about ways to counter threats.
The cyberthreat to the U.S. has been heavily debated since the 1990s, when much of American commerce shifted online and critical systems began to rely increasingly on networked computers. Security experts began to warn of looming disaster, including threats that terrorists could cut off a city's water supply or shut down electricity.
But what's emerged in recent years, according to cyber experts, is the constant pilfering of America's intellectual property. Administration officials say it's difficult to put an estimate on the losses, especially since businesses don't always know or tell the government if they've been attacked.
The guidelines and voluntary program come on the one-year anniversary of Obama signing an executive order calling for their creation. Obama wants Congress to pass legislation that would give the government more power to secure networks and deter attacks, but lawmakers have disagreed over the need for legislation.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who joined chief executives of electric utility Pepco and defense contractor Lockheed Martin on a panel at the White House event, said he opposed more government regulation and pointed to fear as "the best incentive that I have in this regard."
"That's what motivates on this nonstop," Stephenson said. "It just scares the living hell out of us."
Stephenson said companies must proselytize that fear to their suppliers as well as their employees. Workers need more training to prevent against attacks, he said, and suggested that staff who knowingly or inadvertently violate systems should face stronger penalties, maybe even "go home for a period of time."
"It can be fatal if you have an exposure in this area," Stephenson said.
Obama did not speak at the event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, but instead issued a written statement. "America's economic prosperity, national security, and our individual liberties depend on our commitment to securing cyberspace and maintaining an open, interoperable, secure and reliable Internet," he said.