If you could read the president’s classified daily intelligence brief, which threat do you imagine would cause the most night sweats? A resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan? An uncertain leadership transition and recent missile tests in nuclear-armed North Korea? An increasingly bellicose Russia, or a bullying China? The spread of al-Qaida terrorist franchises in Yemen and North Africa? Iranian assassins attempting to sneak across our southern border?
If you are reading this on a computer, the threat that most worries many intelligence experts may already be at your fingertips.
“The biggest national security threat to our country that I have ever seen, and one that we are woefully unprepared for as a nation, is the cybersecurity threat,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the launch of The Hill’s Global Affairs Blog. Rogers noted that the director of the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s electronic spymaster, has predicted that the United States will suffer a “catastrophic cyberevent” at some point in the next 12 to 24 months. “If I told you that someone was planning to launch missiles at the United States in that same timeframe, imagine all that we would do as a country to get ready and protect ourselves. Yet most Americans don’t even understand that a whole bunch of bad guys have the intent and capability to cause us great harm through cyberespionage and cyberattack.”
The cyberthreat is greatly complicated by the fact that it not only targets U.S. government networks (including those of the Pentagon and intelligence agencies) hundreds of thousands of times each year, but it also targets the intellectual property rights and economic seed corn contained on the computers of private industry. There are basically only two types of companies in the United States, Rogers said: those whose computers have been hacked and they know it, and those whose computers have been compromised and they are totally unaware of it. Each year credit-card companies will be targeted more than 300,000 times by computer hackers, for instance, many of them based in Eastern Europe and connected to former and current Russian intelligence agents. China has proven perhaps the most aggressive nation in economic espionage, stealing the trade secrets of U.S. industry at a “breathtaking” pace that collectively amounts, says Rogers, “to the largest transfer of wealth in history.”
The asymmetrical appeal of cyberwar has also not been lost on adversaries looking for vulnerabilities to counter U.S. conventional military superiority. Routine military doctrine for potential adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea is to begin any confrontation with the United States with a cyberattack that sows chaos and cripples command-and-control networks.
“Unfortunately we live in an age when that is the daily reality, because it’s the cheapest investment foreign countries can make” to counter U.S. power, Rogers said. “So we as a country need to prepare ourselves for what is already happening. We are already engaged in a cyberwar.”