Panetta Warns of Cyber Pearl Harbor: ‘The Capability to Paralyze This Country Is There Now’

By Edwin Mora | June 13, 2012 | 3:44pm EDT

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. (AP Photo)

( -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned a Senate panel today that America faces "the potential for another Pearl Harbor" launched by enemies who have the capability to wield a cyberattack that would “paralyze this country.”

Panetta made his remarks under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) during a Department of Defense (DOD) budget hearing held by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Referring to a potential cyberattack against the United States, Graham asked, “You said something that just kind of went over everybody’s head, I think, that there’s a Pearl Harbor in the making here. You’re talking about shutting down financial systems, releasing chemicals from chemical plants, releasing water from dams, shutting down power systems that can affect the very survival of the nation. What’s the likelihood in the next five years that one of these major events will occur?”

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Panetta answered, “All I can tell you is that technologically the capability to paralyze this country is there now.”

When Graham asked whether a “growing will” existed among enemies of the United States to engage in cyberattack, Panetta said, “I think that the more this technology develops, the more the will to potentially use it is going to take place.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Graham, who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, then followed up and asked, “Would you say there’s a high probability?”

“I think there’s a high risk,” said Panetta.

Earlier in the hearing, Panetta fielded questions on a potential cyberattack against the United States from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who asked him to elaborate on what he meant by a “digital Pearl Harbor,” whether the Defense Department has enough resources to deal with such a problem, and whether a sense of urgency was necessary.

“I think there has to be a greater sense of urgency with regards to the cyber potential not only now, but in the future,” said Panetta.  “I think this is a, obviously it’s a rapidly developing area. The reality is we are the target of literally hundreds of thousands of attacks every day. It’s not only aimed at government, it’s aimed at the private sector.”

“There are a lot of capabilities that are being developed in this area,” said Panetta, who served as CIA director in the past.  “I’m very concerned that 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 system would virtually paralyze this country. And, as far as I’m concerned, that represents the potential for another Pearl Harbor as far as the kind of attack that we could be the target of using cyber.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey. (AP Photo)

“For that reason, it’s very important that we do everything that we can, obviously, to defend against that potential,” said Panetta. “I feel very good about our capabilities in terms of defending our systems with the help of NSA [National Security Agency] and their great technological capabilities.”

“I do think that authorities and the ability to try to not only -- is not only in the defense sector,” he said,  “it’s in the civilian sector that we have to improve this and I think that’s the area where we have to deal with the additional authorities.”

In answering the same questions from Mikulski, who also serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the scope of the cyperattacks that America is experiencing now, which include hackers overwhelming Internet systems and the theft of intellectual property and technology.

Dempsey also said the U.S. military is in need of rules of engagement for how to deal with the cyber threat.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) (AP Photo)

“We’ve seen the world go from distributed denial of services -- you know, just hackers overwhelming a Web site -- to incredible intellectual property theft and technology theft to now destructive cyber,” said Gen. Dempsey.  “It’s in the open press and that has all happened in the matter of a few years, and this particular domain, the cyber domain, is changing rapidly.”

“So to your question about sense urgency, I can’t overstate my personal sense of urgency about that,” he said. “Secondly, I like to pile on to the secretary in support of the pending legislation that encourages information-sharing and takes a good necessary, but only first step. And that thirdly, I’ll tell you on the issue of authorities, we, the president does have the authorities he needs,” he continued.

“What we need to develop are some rules of engagement, if you will, because these things occurr at network speed,” said Dempsey. “This is not something we can afford to convene a study after someone has knocked down the east coast power grid. So, we’re working on that.”

Both Dempsey and Panetta expressed support for the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Respectively, they are the chair and ranking-member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Almost exactly to the day a year ago on June 9, 2011, then-CIA Director Panetta told the Senate armed forces panel during his confirmation hearing as the defense secretary, “The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber attack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems.”

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