In warning of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did the nation a service last month by dramatically pointing out the dangers of cyberattacks on its government, financial networks, power grids, transportation systems and water supplies.
Mr. Panetta may have exaggerated the dangers of a single catastrophic attack, but he did not overstate the overall risks of technologically advanced cybertools to undermine the nation's economy and security.
Congress and the country will ignore him at their peril. The computers and electronic communications that control the nation's basic institutions and services expose millions of people to disruptions of unprecedented scale.
At the same time, Iran, Russia and China, as well as militant groups, have become increasingly aggressive and technologically advanced.
Fortunately, Mr. Panetta's comments got widespread attention. They may even have lit a fire under Congress, which last August stalled an Obama administration-backed bill, partly because of opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In opposing mandatory security standards for critical-infrastructure industries, such as energy and banking, the nation's largest business lobby cited burdensome regulations. It failed to acknowledge how better security can protect operations and profits.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to bring cybersecurity legislation to the floor when senators return for the lame-duck session. If Congress fails to act quickly, President Obama should protect the nation with a broad executive order that would promote information sharing about cybersecurity between government and industry.
Civil liberties and privacy concerns, as well as rapidly changing technology, will complicate efforts to develop an effective cyberdefense system, through legislation or executive order. But it has to be done.
America's adversaries won't wait. Neither should Congress.