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Originally published Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 7:29 PM

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Panetta calls U.S. vulnerable to cyberattack

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday that the United States was facing the possibility of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" and was increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could dismantle the nation's power grid, transportation system, financial networks and government.

The New York Times

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NEW YORK — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday that the United States was facing the possibility of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" and was increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could dismantle the nation's power grid, transportation system, financial networks and government.

In a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Panetta painted a dire picture of how such an attack on the United States might unfold. He said he was reacting to increasing aggressiveness and technological advances by the nation's adversaries, which officials identified as China, Russia, Iran and extremist groups.

"An aggressor nation or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals," Panetta said. "They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country."

Defense officials insisted Panetta's words were not hyperbole, and that he was responding to a recent wave of cyberattacks on large U.S. financial institutions.

But Pentagon officials acknowledged Panetta was also pushing for legislation on Capitol Hill that would require new standards at critical private-sector infrastructure facilities — like power plants, water-treatment facilities and gas pipelines — where a computer breach could cause casualties or economic damage.

In August a cybersecurity bill was blocked by a group of Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain, who took the side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and said it would be too burdensome for corporations.

The most destructive possibilities, Panetta said, involve "cyberactors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at once, in combination with a physical attack on our country." He described the collective result as a "cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and loss of life, paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability."

With the bill stalled, Panetta said President Obama was weighing the option of an executive order that would promote information sharing on cybersecurity between government and private industry.

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