Cyber Threats Given New Sense of Urgency

This week, several top American intelligence officials gathered for an annual Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to discuss top threats to US security. Chief among their concerns were threats emanating from cyberspace. National Intelligence Director John Clapper sounded the alarm, saying, “It’s hard to overemphasize its significance… These capabilities put all sectors of our country at risk – from government and private networks to critical infrastructure.”  FBI Director Rober Mueller echoed Clapper’s remarks, noting that cyber threats are “right up there” with terrorism.  While Clapper underscored the issue’s urgency, he explained that there is only a “remote chance” that a cyberattack would “result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.”

In a separate hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, General Keith Alexander, chief of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, offered a rare glimpse into US cyber strategy. According to General Alexander, “13 teams of programmers and computer experts,” described as a “defend-the-nation team,” could be used to launch offensive cyber strikes against foreign states who have attacked the US.

Following the intelligence officials’ hearings on the Hill, President Obama reiterated the danger of cyberwarfare in an ABC News interview, and singled out China in particular, stating, “We’ve made it very clear to China and some other state actors that, you know, we expect them to follow international norms and abide by international rules… And we’ll have some pretty tough talk with them. We already have.” Obama demonstrated this tougher posture one day later in a phone call to China’s new president Xi Jinping. After congratulating him on his new position, Obama used the opportunity to reiterate “US concerns about computer hacking,” while also noting how the cyber threat reflects a “shared challenge,” Reuters reports.

Typically, China has responded to the US hacking allegations by denying responsibility. Departing Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, for example, addressed the accusations during a news conference, saying, “Anyone who tries to fabricate or piece together a sensational story to serve a political motive will not be able to blacken the name of others or whitewash themselves.” The minister did offer a glimmer of hope, though, suggesting that “Cyberspace needs not war, but rules and cooperation.”

Given the high level attention the issue received this week, it’s clear that cybersecurity is now truly a top priority, especially as both the public and private sectors continuously suffer tremendous economic losses at the hands of state-sponsored hackers in China. Recognizing the financial impact and need for new legislation, Obama met privately with CEOs to discuss the threat, further demonstrating a sense of urgency.

The President’s willingness to broach the sensitive subject with new Chinese leadership, coupled with recent remarks by China’s Foreign Minister, indicate that “cooperation” might be a possibility on some levels. Still, Obama is wise to understand the broad spectrum of threats. While China is at the forefront of cyberattacks, other states and non-state actors create cause for concern, as well. At a government level, it is encouraging to see the formation of a “defend-the-nation” team, as General Alexander outlined. It is also important that the government and private sector work collaboratively to develop new strategies and share information. Ultimately, it is a combination of approaches involving a variety of key players that will strengthen defenses, safeguard intellectual property, and protect citizens’ private information.  

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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