Dispatches From The Edge
Cyber War: Reality or Hype?
By Conn Hallinan
January 10, 2012
During his confirmation hearings this past June, U.S.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned the Senate, "The
next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a
cyber attack that cripples our grid, our security
systems, our financial systems, our governmental
systems." It was powerful imagery: a mighty fleet
reduced to smoking ruin, an expansionist Asian power at
the nation's doorstep.
But is "cyber war" really a threat? Can cyber war
actually "cripple" the U.S., and who might these
computer terrorists be? Or is the language just sturm
und drang spun up by a coalition of major arms
manufacturers, the Pentagon, and Internet security
firms, allied with China bashers aimed at launching a
new Cold War in Asia?
The language is sobering. Former White House Security
Aide Richard Clarke, author of "Cyberwar", conjures up
an apocalyptic future of paralyzed U.S. cities, subways
crashing, planes "literally falling out of the sky,"
and thousands dead. Retired Admiral and Bush
administration National Intelligence Director, Mike
McConnell grimly warns "The United States is fighting a
cyber war today and we are losing."
Much of this rhetoric is aimed at China. According to
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chair of the House
Intelligence Committee, the Chinese government has
launched a "predatory" campaign of "cyber theft" that
has reached an "intolerable level." U.S. Sen. Dianne
Feinstein (D-CA) charges that a "significant portion"
of "cyber attacks" on U.S. companies "emanate from
China." Former CIA and National Security Agency
director Michael Hayden told Congress, "I stand back in
awe of the breadth, depth, sophistication, and
persistence of the Chinese espionage effort against the
United States of America."
China has been accused of hacking into the Pentagon,
the International Monetary Fund, the French government,
the CIA, and stealing information from major U.S. arms
maker Boeing, and the Japanese firm Mitsubishi. The
latter builds the American high performance fighter,
The Pentagon has even developed a policy strategy that
considers major cyber attacks to be acts of war,
triggering what could be a military response. "If you
shut down our power grid," one Defense official told
the Wall Street Journal, "maybe we will put a missile
down one of your smokestacks."
But consider the sources for all this scare talk:
Clarke is the chair of a firm that consults on cyber
security, and McConnell is the executive vice-president
of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Both are
currently doing business with the Pentagon.
Arms giants like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop
Grumman, Boeing, and other munitions manufactures are
moving heavily into the cyber security market. In 2010,
Boeing snapped up Argon ST and Narus, two cyber
security firms with an estimated value of $2.4 billion.
Raytheon bought Applied Signal Technology, General
Dynamics absorbed Network Connectivity Solutions, and
Britain's major arms firm, BAE, purchased Norkom and
"There is a feeding frenzy right now to provide
products and services to meet the demands of
governments, law enforcement and the military," says
Ron Deibert, director of the Canada Center for Global
There are big bucks at stake. Between the Defense
Department and Homeland Security, the U.S. will spend
some $10.5 billion for cyber security by 2015. The
Pentagon's new Cyber Command is slated to have a staff
of 10,000, and according to Northrop executive Kent
Schneider, the market for cyber arms and security in
the U.S. is $100 billion.
But is cyber war everything it is cracked up to be, and
is the U.S. really way behind the curve in the scramble
to develop cyber weapons?
According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in
his New Yorker article "The Online Threat," the
potential for cyber mayhem has "been exaggerated" and
the Defense Department and cyber security firms have
blurred the line between cyber espionage and cyber war.
The former is the kind of thing that goes on, day in
and day out, between governments and industry, except
its medium is the Internet. The latter is an attack on
another country's ability to wage war, defend itself,
or run its basic infrastructure.
Most experts say the end-of-the-world scenarios drawn
up by people like Clarke are largely fiction. How could
an enemy shut down the U.S. national power grid when
there is no such thing? A cyber attack would have to
disrupt more than 100 separate power systems throughout
the nation to crash the U.S. grid.
Most financial institutions are also protected. The one
example of a successful cyber attack in that area was
an apparent North Korean cyber assault this past march
on the South Korean bank Nonghyup that crashed the
institution's computers. But an investigation found
that the bank had been extremely remiss in changing
passwords or controlling access to its computers.
According to Peter Sommer, author of "Reducing Systems
Cybersecurity Risk," the cyber threat to banks "is a
bit of nonsense."
However, given that many Americans rely on computers,
cell phones, I-Pads, smart phones and the like, any
hint that an "enemy" could disrupt access to those
devices is likely to get attention. Throw in some scary
scenarios and a cunning enemy-China-and it's pretty
easy to make people nervous.
But contrary to McConnell's statement, the U.S. is more
advanced in computers than other countries in the
world, and the charge that the U.S. is behind the curve
sounds suspiciously like the "bomber gap" with the
Russians in the `50s and the "missile gap" in the
1960s. Both were illusions that had more to do with
U.S. presidential elections and arms industry lobbying
than anything in the real world.
The focus on the China threat certainly fits the Obama
administration's recent "strategic pivot" toward Africa
and Asia. China draws significant resources from
Africa, including oil, gas, copper, and iron ore, and
Beijing is beginning to reassert itself in south and
east Asia. The U.S. now has a separate military command
for Africa-Africom-and the White House recently
excluded U.S. military forces in the Asia theatre from
any cutbacks. Washington is also deploying U.S. Marines
in Australia. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton told the National Defense University this past
August, "We know we face some long-term challenges
about how we are going to cope with what the rise of
But James Lewis, an expert on Chinese cyber espionage,
told Hersh that the Chinese have no intention of
attacking U.S. financial services since they own a
considerable portion of them. According to Lewis,
"current Chinese officials" told him "a cyber-war
attack would do as much economic harm to us as to you."
The U.S. is China's largest trading partner and Beijing
holds over a trillion dollars in U.S. securities.
There is also a certain irony to the accusations aimed
at China. According to the New York Times, the U.S.-and
Israel-designed the "Stuxnet" virus that has infected
some 30,000 computers in Iran and set back Teheran's
nuclear program. The virus has also turned up in China,
Pakistan, and Indonesia. In terms of cyber war, the
U.S. is ahead of the curve, not behind.
What all this scare talk has done is allow the U.S.
military to muscle its way into cyber security in a way
that could potentially allow it to monitor virtually
everything on the Internet, including personal
computers and email. In fact, the military has resisted
a push to insure cyber security through the use of
encryption because that would prevent the Pentagon from
tapping into Internet traffic.
Does China really pose a threat to the U.S.? There is
no question that China-based computers have hacked into
a variety of governmental agencies and private
companies (as have Russians, Israelis, Americans,
French, Taiwanese, South Koreans, etc.-in short
everyone spies on everyone), but few observers think
that China has any intention of going to war with the
much more powerful U.S.
However, Beijing makes a handy bug-a-boo. One four-star
admiral told Hersh that in arguing against budget cuts,
the military "needs an enemy and it's settled on
China." It would not be the first time that ploy was
If the Pentagon's push is successful, it could result
in an almost total loss of privacy for most Americans,
as well as the creation of a vast and expensive new
security bureaucracy. Give a government the power to
monitor the Internet, says Sommers, and it will do it.
In this electronic field of dreams, if we build it,
they will use it.
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