By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of senior Republican and Democratic senators proposed a new law on Tuesday to combat computer espionage and the theft of valuable commercial data from U.S. companies.
The four powerful senators - Democrats Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller and Republicans John McCain and Tom Coburn - joined together to launch the Deter Cyber Theft Act.
The proposed law aims to combat the theft of intellectual property from U.S. companies, which spend billions in research and development only to be targeted by foreign firms and countries that illegally access their data and use it to compete against them.
General Keith Alexander, head of the U.S. National Security Agency and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, has called the growing problem the "greatest transfer of wealth in history."
China is accused of being the biggest culprit in theft attempts against U.S. companies. American lawmakers have said U.S. companies suffered estimated losses in 2012 of more than $300 billion due to trade-secret theft, much of it due to Chinese cyber espionage.
Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the new law would help protect American businesses and innovation.
"We need to call out those who are responsible for cyber theft and empower the president to hit the thieves where it hurts most - in their wallets, by blocking imports of products or from companies that benefit from this theft," Levin said in a statement.
McCain, a powerful voice in the Senate on armed services and foreign affairs issues, said the bill would give President Barack Obama authority to target those who try to benefit from cyber crime.
A divided U.S. Congress has not approved much legislation in recent years, given a string of partisan fiscal battles.
But with lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle acknowledging that cyber security is a rising concern, this bipartisan measure - sponsored by leading senators - will likely draw plenty of interest.
A senior Democratic aide described cyber security as a "huge priority," for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The proposed act would require the Director of National Intelligence to compile an annual report that includes a list of nations that engage in economic or industrial espionage in cyberspace against U.S. firms or individuals. It would include a priority watch list of the worst offenders.
The report would also include a list of U.S. technologies targeted by the espionage, details of what had been stolen and a list of items produced using the stolen information.
The DNI's report would also list countries that had benefited from the theft and the action taken by the U.S. government to combat cyber espionage.
Under the proposed law, the president would be required to block imports of products containing stolen U.S. technology or products made by state-owned enterprises of nations on the DNI's priority watch list that are similar to items identified as being made using stolen technology.
(Reporting by Deborah Charles; Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by David Brunnstrom)