Retired general: U.S. vulnerable to cyber attack

April 11, 2011

While the U.S. military has plenty of capability to launch a cyber attack, it lacks the ability to defend against those types of attack, Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a conference on cyberspace Monday in Colorado Springs.

The ability to wage war in cyberspace will “change the relationship between have and have-not states just as the advent of nuclear weapons did,” said Pace, who retired as a Marine Corps general in 2007 and is now president and CEO of SM&A Strategic Advisors, a California-basedconsulting firm. He made the comments at Cyber 1.1, a one-day conference at The Broadmoor hotel sponsored by the Space Foundation. The conference is a companion event to this week’s 27th National Space Symposium at The Broadmoor.

Pace said he recommended against launching a cyber attack while he was Joint Chiefs chairman because he didn’t want the nation to disclose it had the capability to wage such an attack, because the military could achieve the same effect another way and because launching such an attack would compromise the U.S. government’s ability to object to such an attack being waged against it. The U.S. did later launch cyber attacks, Pace said, but he did not provide any details during his 30-minute speech.

Not only do many military weapon systems depend on computers and computer networks to operate them, the nation’s economy, communications systems and many other critical systems are controlled and operated through computers and computer networks, Pace said. The nation has little understanding of the nature of the threats against it in cyberspace and has little capability to know whether systems have been compromised, let alone who may have compromised them, he said.

“We are way late in being ready to defend ourselves against a cyber attack and we are highly vulnerable as a nation. We have the most capability on the planet to attack (in cyberspace). But like every other nation, we are vulnerable” to such an attack, Pace said.

The first step in reducing that vulnerability is to develop technology that would continually check to determine if databases have been changed and whether those who made the changes were authorized to do so, he said.

Data manipulation is perhaps the greatest threat the nation faces in cyberspace because the nation’s ability to defend itself would grind to a halt if sensitive data is compromised during a time of crisis, said Roger Cressey, another speaker at the conference; Cressey is a senior vice president of military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and previously served in White House cyber security and counterterrorism posts. While some progress has been made in defending against such attacks, the nation still must do a better job, he said.

Improving the nation’s defenses against cyber attacks likely begins with adding layers to defenses in databases, communications networks and computer and communications hardware, said Jerry Edgerton, president of the Government Group of Blue Ridge Networks, a Virginia-based cyber security provider. He was part of a panel of corporate executives at the conference who discussed advances in cyber security, including building more security features into computer and network hardware.

Call the writer at 636-0234.

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