Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's greatest enemy in cyberspace may be U.S. cyber "revolutionaries."
While visiting the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska on Friday, Panetta invoked the image of Pearl Harbor, as he has done before, to warn soldiers about the threat an attack against critical infrastructure networks would pose to Americans.
Cyberattacks ranked fourth among the challenges he listed that confront today's military -- after terrorism, two ongoing wars and rogue nations.
"We're now in a very different world, where we could face a cyberattack that could be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor," he said. "I mean, cyber these days -- someone using cyber can take down our power grid system, take down our financial systems in this country, take down our government systems, taken down our banking systems. They could virtually paralyze this country."
Other security experts say cyberattacks "these days" are unlikely. Terrorists don't have the skills to launch them and the nations that have the capability are afraid the United States will retaliate with conventional weapons if they nuke a network, they say.
"For these reasons, the immediate threat in cyberspace involves espionage and crime. These are daily occurrences," James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told a House committee in May.
Still, Panetta seems very worried about the future threat. At his June Senate confirmation hearing, he invoked himself invoking Pearl Harbor: "I have often said that there is a strong likelihood that the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems. This is a real possibility in today's world."
He added, "I have a huge responsibility, if confirmed, in this new position in dealing with the cyber area through NSA and others," referring to the National Security Agency, the Pentagon's network protection branch.
Meanwhile, as Panetta tries to rouse the cyber forces, Death and Taxes writer D. J. Pangburn is digging into the Achilles heel of U.S. cybersecurity -- the shortage of forces. The United States needs some 20,000 to 30,000 programming sleuths to operate effectively in the cyber domain, according to some estimates.
Pangburn last week published an open letter calling on attendees of DEF CON, an annual hacker conference, not to sell out by talking to NSA scouts there.
This weekend, government officials were scheduled to recruit future cyber warriors at a "Meet the Feds" kids' workshop and elsewhere on the grounds of Las Vegas' Rio Hotel.
Pangburn argues that "in the future, hackers will be integral to dissent -- in a sense, you already are in light of WikiLeaks, Anonymous and LulzSec," hacktivist groups that post U.S. secrets online. He adds, "We hope that most of you stay out of the NSA's monolithic spy palace to keep the [Word We Can't Print Here] in our government honest. . . you have the capabilities to check power or even threaten its very existence."
On Saturday, Anonymous apparently followed Pangburn's marching orders. The group claims to have plastered the Web with 70 U.S. law enforcement agencies' private emails and other confidential materials:
"A recent [Homeland Security Department] bulletin has called us 'script kiddies' that lack 'any capability to inflict damage to critical infrastructure yet we continue to get in and out of any system we please," states an accompanying message purportedly from the hacktivists. "GIVE UP. You are losing the cyberwar, and the attacks against the governments, militaries and corporations of the world will continue to escalate. Hackers, join us to make 2011 the year of leaks and revolutions."