Panetta warns cyberspace in "pre-9/11 moment", reveals more aggressive stance

Contributor:  Defence IQ Press
Posted:  10/16/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   cyber

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined a new, more “aggressive” cyber policy during a speech to industry at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York over the weekend.

“We won't succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defences alone,” Panetta said.

We’re in the digital equivalent of a “pre-9/11 moment" according to Panetta. Just like in 2001 the warning signs are there and similarly,  while the U.S. has passable defences to repel a cyber attack, it could be left exposed if improvements aren’t forthcoming and procedures continue to go unchecked.

“A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11,” Panetta said. “Such a destructive cyber terrorist attack could paralyze the nation.”

The idea of a cyber attack is ethereal. It’s a well-worn phrase but what does it actually mean? What is it in a tangible form?

It’s actually very simple. A cyber attack isn’t an obscure threat that just affects a computer network or an anonymous system in the cloud; it’s a very real threat that is essentially the catalyst for a physical attack.

Through cyberspace “an aggressor nation or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals,” he said. “They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”

That is why the U.S. recently updated its policy on what constitutes a cyber attack and highlighted the appropriate action to take in the event of suffering one. A cyber attack is now jus ad bellum: an act of war.

“I’m not being melodramatic … but the reality is cyber threats will lead to lead to physical attacks,” said Robert Lentz, President of Cyber Security Strategies and former CISO for the U.S. DoD at the Cyber Defence and Network Security conference in London earlier this year.

“Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for actions that harm America or its interests. But improved defences will not stop all cyber attacks. If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action to defend the nation when directed by the President,” Panetta said, indicating that the U.S. needs to have a proactive cyber strategy rather than just a reactive one. “For these kinds of scenarios, the Department has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace.”

Panetta didn’t use the word “offensive” in relation to the DoD's cyber strategy, but the implication is certainly there. The Stuxnet virus that infected and derailed Iran’s nuclear facilities in 20120 is commonly thought to have been a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. Mikko Hypponen, Chief Research Officer at F-Secure, said at a cyber resilience conference in Amsterdam this morning that “Stuxnet started the offensive cyber arms race” - so the idea of the U.S. being involved in offensive cyber tactics is not new. However, the Obama administration has never publically acknowledged that it was behind the 2010 attack. Panetta’s speech in New York is the most aggressive stance the U.S has taken on cyberspace to date.

Did Panetta just change the rules of the game? With its (at least publically) defensive strategy, the U.S. has been treading water in cyberspace for some time. Was this Panetta’s half-time team-talk, slapping his guys on the back telling them to get back out there and go on the offence?

“Our mission is to defend the nation,” he said. “We defend. We deter. And if called upon, we take decisive action to defend our citizens. In the past, we have done so through operations on land and at sea, in the skies and in space. In this century, the United States military must help defend the nation in cyberspace as well.”

Lentz concluded his talk by letting the London delegation in on a prediction: “Cyber physical threats are on the horizon and that will be the ‘tipping point’ when the government really becomes involved.”

I think the government just tipped.

What do you think about Panetta’s speech? Is this a “game-changer” or is it just more government posturing and grandiose rhetoric? Send in your comments to

Defence IQ Press Contributor:   Defence IQ Press

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