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Panetta: Sense of Urgency Needed to Defend Against Cyber Attacks

June 13, 2012

The increasing threat of cyber attacks against the nation’s computer networks requires a commensurate growth in resources dedicated to protecting them, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Congress.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee concerning the fiscal year 2013 budget in Washington, D.C., June 13, 2012. DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett

“I think there has to be a greater sense of urgency with regards to the cyber potential, not only now but in the future,” Panetta told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense. “Obviously it’s a rapidly developing area.”

Enemies launch hundreds of thousands of attacks every day on U.S. computer networks, government and non-government alike. “I'm very concerned at the potential in cyber to be able to cripple our power grid, to be able to cripple our government systems, to be able to cripple our financial systems,” Panetta said. “It would virtually paralyze this country. And as far as I'm concerned, that represents the potential for another Pearl Harbor … using cyber.”

Testifying alongside Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the nature of cyber attacks has changed quickly. A few years ago, he said, hackers launched denial of service attacks on computer systems. Today, sophisticated users, criminal groups and even nations participate in intellectual property and technology theft and have progressed to destructive cyber attacks. “I can't overstate my personal sense of urgency about that,” he said.

Panetta feels “very good” about DOD’s ability to defend its computer systems, but he is concerned about the security of non-governmental systems. “I think that's the area where we have to deal with the additional authorities,” he said.

Dempsey stressed that he, too, supports legislation that encourages information sharing with civilian systems.

The chairman said the department has the authority it needs in the cyber world, but must develop rules of engagement that work at network speed.

“This is not something where we can afford to … convene a study after someone has knocked out the East Coast power grid,” he said.

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