Cyber attack warnings from Panetta not hyperbole

Sunday October 14, 2012


Some banks are said to be too big to fail. Thankfully, banks in Berkshire County appear to be too small to be hacked.

So far, cyber terrorists, supposedly from Iran, have aimed at larger prey -- initially, in late September, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and PNC -- when they crashed servers, causing "denials of service." Customers could not access their accounts online, nor could they pay bills.

According to news reports, frustration grew because the banks had not clearly explained what had happened.

"It was probably the least impressive corporate presentation of bad news I've ever seen," said Paul Downs, a small-business owner in Bridgeport, Pa., on a New York Times business blog. "This is extremely disconcerting."

A group with ties to the Middle East calling itself Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters claimed responsibility, explaining that it was striking back against that anti-Islam video mocking the Prophet Muhammad that is blamed for a wave of violence across the region.

As Downs wrote, "A major bank has a problem and gives no indication of what's happening, when it started or when it will stop. That's pretty freaky if it's your own business money and you need to do things with it."

This past week, three more banks -- Capital One, SunTrust and Regions Financial, based in Alabama -- were disrupted or threatened.

Against that backdrop, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put out a remarkably strong warning Thursday that the nation could be facing a "cyber Pearl Harbor" because of greater vulnerability to computer hackers who could jeopardize, or even dismantle, the power grid, transportation system, financial networks and government.

He voiced his dire predictions in a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City, explaining that China, Russia, Iran and militant groups were displaying increasingly aggressive, technology-based tactics.

"They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail freight trains loaded with lethal chemicals," Panetta warned. "They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country."

Was this a case of hyperbole and alarmist thinking? Not so, said Defense Department officials, adding that he was speaking in reference to those cyber attacks on U.S. banks.

But, as The New York Times and other media reported, he was also lobbying for legislation on Capitol Hill that would tighten security at power plants, water treatment facilities and gas pipelines where an attack on computer systems could produce significant casualties or economic damage.

So, Panetta was kicking a political football after Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, led Republicans this past summer in blocking a cyber security bill opposed by the right-wing U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the grounds that it would create too much of a financial burden on corporations.

Panetta summed up his worst-case scenario: "Cyber-actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack, a cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability."

In his speech to a group called Executives for National Security, Panetta mentioned a possible executive order by President Obama to combat the cyber security threat, but cooperation by companies would be voluntary.

Panetta is no alarmist, and he noted that improved defenses against a cyber attack won't eliminate the risk.

"If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us, to defend this nation when directed by the president," he said.

"For these kinds of scenarios, the department has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace."

After Election Day, no matter the outcome, Congress returns for a lame-duck session crowded with urgent priorities. It should go without saying that overcoming partisan gridlock for the sake of preventing Internet damage to the nation's security ought to be fast-tracked.

But given the polarization that will grip the nation regardless of who wins, it's sad to have to acknowledge that only a cockeyed optimist would bet on approval of the legislation Panetta advocates for the safety and well-being of the nation.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@berkshire
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter, he's at @BE_cfanto.


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