A top U.S. military official said Tuesday he believes hackers are attacking Ukrainian computer and communications networks—but he declined to point the finger at Russia.
"In an open unclassified forum, I'm not prepared to comment on the specifics of nation-state behavior," Vice Adm. Michael Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked whether Russia is using cyberattacks against Ukraine. Rogers currently runs the Navy's cyber unit and is President Obama's nominee to head both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.
"Clearly cyber will be an element of almost any crisis we are going to see in the future. It has been in the past. I believe we see it today in the Ukraine. We've seen it in Syria, Georgia. It increasingly is becoming a norm," Rogers said.
Ukrainian officials have said in recent weeks that government, media, and telecommunications systems have come under cyberattack. The attacks were designed to jam communications and hinder the government's response to the crisis in Crimea, the officials said.
Ukrainian systems are also reportedly infected with a cyberespionage tool designed to spy on the computer users.
During Tuesday's Senate hearing, Rogers pointed to the cyberattacks in Ukraine as an example of "what is not acceptable."
He said the United States may consider offering "specific technical assistance" or other measures to help Ukraine defend its networks.
Rogers warned that the United States is woefully underprepared itself for a cyberattack. He said one of his top priorities will be better defense of government computer systems.
"The reality is that the network structure of today reflects a different time and a different place," he said. "It's only a matter of time, I believe, before we start to see more destructive activity."
The NSA nominee urged Congress to enact legislation that would enable the government and private sector to share information about cyberattacks and set cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructure, such as banks and electric utilities. Rogers identified liability protection for businesses that share information as a "critical element" in cybersecurity legislation.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he is "very close" to an agreement on information-sharing cybersecurity legislation with Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein.
The House passed its own cybersecurity bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, last year. But the surveillance leaks by Edward Snowden have heightened privacy concerns and dampened enthusiasm for any legislation that may expand the NSA's access to data.
Rogers said he supports President Obama's plan to remove the massive database of phone records from the NSA's control. He promised to be transparent and said the agency must do a better job communicating with the public.
"I welcome a dialogue on this topic, and I think it's important for us as a nation," he said, referring to the debate over surveillance and privacy. "I look forward to being part of that dialogue."
Although Rogers said Snowden's leaks have harmed U.S. national security, he declined to call the NSA leaker a traitor.
"But I certainly would not use the word hero," Rogers said.