U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Wednesday acknowledged the possibility of a cyber attack paralyzing functioning of the U.S. government as well as the country's financial systems in the near future, and called for an increase in resources dedicated to defend against such attacks.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee in connection with the fiscal year 2013 budget, Panetta warned the lawmakers that the increasing threat of cyber attacks against the nation's computer networks requires a commensurate growth in resources dedicated to protecting them.
"I think there has to be a greater sense of urgency with regards to the cyber potential, not only now but in the future. Obviously it's a rapidly developing area," Panetta told the Senate panel on defense.
He was apparently referring to thousands of attacks launched on a daily basis on U.S. computer networks, targeting 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. It would virtually paralyze this country. And as far as I'm concerned, that represents the potential for another Pearl Harbor … using cyber," Panetta said.
Testifying alongside Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate panel that the nature of cyber attacks had changed quickly in recent years.
Noting that hackers were using denial of service attacks on computer systems until a few years ago, Dempsey said they had now progressed to destructive cyber attacks. He said sophisticated users, criminal groups and some nations were now participating in intellectual property and technology theft.
I can't overstate my personal sense of urgency about that," he said.
Dempsey said Panetta was confident about DoD's ability to defend its computer systems, but added that the Defense Secretary remained concerned about the security of non-governmental systems. "I think that's the area where we have to deal with the additional authorities," he added
Dempsey stressed that he, too, supports legislation that encourages information sharing with civilian systems. He said the defense department currently had the authority it needed in the cyber world, but added that new rules of engagement that work at network speed must be developed soon.
"This is not something where we can afford to … convene a study after someone has knocked out the East Coast power grid," he said.