Security Leader Says U.S. Would Retaliate Against Cyberattacks

The chief of the military’s newly created Cyber Command told Congress on Tuesday that he is establishing 13 teams of programmers and computer experts who could carry out offensive cyberattacks on foreign nations if the United States were hit with a major attack on its own networks, the first time the Obama administration has publicly admitted to developing such weapons for use in wartime.
“I would like to be clear that this team, this defend-the-nation team, is not a defensive team,” Gen. Keith Alexander, who runs both the National Security Agency and the new Cyber Command, told the House Armed Services Committee. “This is an offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace. Thirteen of the teams that we’re creating are for that mission alone.”
General Alexander’s testimony came on the same day the nation’s top intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., warned Congress that a major cyberattack on the United States could cripple the country’s infrastructure and economy, and suggested that such attacks now pose the most dangerous immediate threat to the United States, even more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks.
On Monday, Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, demanded that Chinese authorities investigate such attacks and enter talks about new rules governing behavior in cyberspace.
General Alexander has been a major architect of the American strategy on this issue, but until Tuesday he almost always talked about it in defensive terms. He has usually deflected questions about America’s offensive capability, and turned them into discussions of how to defend against mounting computer espionage from China and Russia, and the possibility of crippling attacks on utilities, cellphone networks and other infrastructure. He was also a crucial player in the one major computer attack the United States is known to have sponsored in recent years, aimed at Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants. He did not discuss that highly classified operation during his open testimony.
Mr. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that American spy agencies saw only a “remote chance” in the next two years of a major computer attack on the United States, which he defined as an operation that “would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.”
Mr. Clapper appeared with the heads of several other intelligence agencies, including Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I. director Robert S. Mueller III, and the C.I.A. director John O. Brennan, to present their annual assessment of the threats facing the nation. It was the first time that Mr. Clapper listed cyberattacks first in his presentation to Congress, and the rare occasion since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that intelligence officials did not list international terrorism first in the catalog of dangers facing the United States.
“In some cases,” Mr. Clapper said in his testimony, “the world is applying digital technologies faster than our ability to understand the security implications and mitigate potential risks.” He said it was unlikely that Russia and China would launch “devastating” cyberattacks against the United States in the near future, but he said foreign spy services had already hacked the computer networks of government agencies, businesses and private companies.
Two specific attacks Mr. Clapper listed, an August 2012 attack against the Saudi oil company Aramco and attacks on American banks and stock exchanges last year, are believed by American intelligence officials to have been the work of Iran.
General Alexander picked up on the same themes in his testimony, saying that he was adding 40 cyber teams, 13 focused on offense and 27 on training and surveillance. When pressed, he said that the best defense hinged on being able to monitor incoming traffic to the United States through private “Internet service providers,” which could alert the government, in the milliseconds that electronic messages move, about potentially dangerous attacks. Such surveillance is bound to raise more debate with privacy advocates, who fear government monitoring of the origin and the addressing data on most e-mail messages and other computer exchanges.
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