Defense Leaders Say Cyber is Top Terror Threat

The poll echoes growing concerns from Defense leaders and members of Congress.

General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of the US Cyber Command, speaks during a discussion at the Reagan Building October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
Jan. 5, 2014, 7:05 p.m.

De­fense of­fi­cials see cy­ber­at­tacks as the greatest threat to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased Monday.

Forty-five per­cent of re­spond­ents to the De­fense News Lead­er­ship Poll named a cy­ber­at­tack as the single greatest threat — nearly 20 per­cent­age points above ter­ror­ism, which ranked second.

The De­fense News Lead­er­ship Poll, un­der­writ­ten by United Tech­no­lo­gies, sur­veyed 352 De­fense News sub­scribers, based on job seni­or­ity, between Nov. 14 and Nov. 28, 2013. The poll tar­geted seni­or em­ploy­ees with­in the White House, Pentagon, Con­gress, and the de­fense in­dustry.

“The mag­nitude of the cy­ber prob­lem, com­bined with de­clin­ing budgets, will chal­lenge the na­tion for years to come,” said Vago Mura­di­an, the ed­it­or of De­fense News.

It’s not the first time cy­ber has ranked at or near the top of a list of se­cur­ity con­cerns. Sev­enty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans called a cy­ber­at­tack from an­oth­er coun­try a ma­jor threat in a Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey re­leased last month.

De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials, for their part, have warned about the in­creas­ing threat. FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey, Rand Beers, the then-act­ing sec­ret­ary for the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, and Gen. Keith Al­ex­an­der, dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency, each voiced their con­cerns be­fore Con­gress last year.

And House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Ro­gers, R-Mich., called it the “largest na­tion­al se­cur­ity threat to the face the U.S. that we are not even close to be­ing pre­pared to handle as a coun­try.”

Mean­while, more than half of poll re­spond­ents said U.S. Cy­ber Com­mand and the NSA should have sep­ar­ate lead­ers, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ruled out such a move last month. Al­ex­an­der, who is ex­pec­ted to re­tire later this year, has over­seen both agen­cies since 2010.

Al­ex­an­der and the NSA have been un­der near con­stant cri­ti­cism since June, when me­dia out­lets began to pub­licly dis­close U.S. in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing pro­grams, largely us­ing doc­u­ments provided by former NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden.

But more than 47 per­cent of poll re­spond­ents said Snowden’s dis­clos­ures have helped the de­bate on what lim­its should be placed on U.S. sur­veil­lance, com­pared with ap­prox­im­ately 44 per­cent that said he has hurt the de­bate.

The poll also touched on the fisc­al chal­lenges faced by the De­fense De­part­ment. De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel said last month that the Pentagon still has to reex­am­ine its pri­or­it­ies des­pite the help provided by the re­cent budget agree­ment.

Al­most 60 per­cent of re­spond­ents said as the de­part­ment faces a smal­ler budget, the Army’s budget should be cut. The Air Force had the second-highest num­ber of re­spond­ents call­ing for its budget to be cut, at nearly 34 per­cent. But roughly three-fourths of re­spond­ents said the Army’s budget will be cut as the Pentagon faces a tight­er budget.

Gen. Ray­mond Odi­erno, the Army’s chief of staff, told mem­bers of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee last year that fur­ther cuts would dra­mat­ic­ally im­pact the force, in­clud­ing read­i­ness and equip­ment mod­ern­iz­a­tion. But with the num­ber of U.S. troops in Afgh­anistan be­ing scaled back, the Army is viewed as the armed ser­vice branch that is most likely to face steep­er budget cuts. 

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