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As cyber threats build against U.S., CEOs ask for "light touch"

U.S. President Barack Obama departs the U.S. Capitol after meeting with Senate Democrats in Washington March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarqu
U.S. President Barack Obama departs the U.S. Capitol after meeting with Senate Democrats in Washington March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarqu

By Susan Heavey and Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Corporate leaders from the defense, technology, energy and banking industries told President Barack Obama on Wednesday they agreed cyber attacks were a top security threat but that they were looking for a "light touch" from the government in response to the risk.

Obama and his top security advisers met with chief executives from 13 companies in the White House Situation Room to talk about how the government and private sector could improve cyber security, including the need for legislation.

The White House has elevated the issue after efforts to improve U.S. cyber defenses through new laws failed in Congress last year.

"I think we all agreed - and that included the administration and the president - that we want as light a government touch on this as possible," Honeywell International's David Cote told CNBC after the meeting.

"Flexibility is important, because this is the kind of threat that changes very quickly," he said.

The meeting came a day after U.S. intelligence leaders said for the first time that cyber attacks and cyber espionage had supplanted terrorism as the top security threat facing the United States.

Obama signed an executive order last month to encourage information-sharing, which most business leaders welcome, and voluntary security standards, which have been a point of contention.

But the executive action is not as strong as law and Obama has urged Congress to try again on legislation. "There are ways that we can harden our critical infrastructure, our financial sector," Obama said in an interview with ABC earlier on Wednesday. "They need to get this done."

Obama took the unusual step of meeting with corporate executives in the Situation Room, the secure site in the West Wing basement where the president meets with national security advisers during crises.

The meeting included Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Wes Bush of Northrop Grumman, Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co, Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, and Nicholas Akins of American Electric Power Co..

"The threat is real ... there is a consistent, persistent threat here that we need to be concerned about as a country," Cote told reporters after the meeting.

This week, U.S. authorities said they were investigating reports that Obama's own family had been hit by hacking.

The president said in the ABC interview that he did not know whether reports were true that hackers had posted financial and personal information online about his wife, Michelle, along with other high-profile Americans.

"It would not shock me if some information ... among people who presumably have pretty good safeguards against it, still gets out," he said.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, Writing by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Ros Krasny and Peter Cooney)