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Officials Worry About Vulnerability of Global Nuclear Stockpile to Cyber Attack

James Clapper, national Intelligence director, testified before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

James Clapper, national Intelligence director, testified before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. // Susan Walsh/AP

Senators requested a national intelligence assessment of foreign nations’ abilities to protect their nuclear weapons from digital strikes after the Pentagon's chief cyber officer said he does not know whether China, Russia or other nuclear powers, aside from the United States, have effective safeguards in place. 

What’s more, the resiliency of most U.S. nuclear systems against a nuclear strike is untested, a new Defense Science Board report concluded.

Gen. C. Robert Kehler, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees Cyber Command, told lawmakers that he agrees a comprehensive assessment is in order. But, he added, "we do evaluate" the potential for a cyber-related attack on U.S. nuclear command and control systems and the weapons systems themselves. He could not tell Congress, however, if other nuclear nations are as prepared for the risk of a digitally-triggered atomic explosion.

"What about the Russians and the Chinese? Do they have the ability to stop some cyberattack from launching one of their nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles?" probed Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Armed Forces Committee. 

"Senator, I don't know," answered Kehler, who was testifying on Tuesday at a committee hearing.

Questions about cyber doomsday scenarios arose as the top U.S. intelligence official, in another Senate chamber, named cyber first on his list of current transnational threats.

There is a danger that unsophisticated attacks by highly motivated actors would have “significant outcomes due to unexpected system configurations and mistakes” or that a vulnerability in one spot “might spill over and contaminate other parts of a networked system," James Clapper, national Intelligence director, testified before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. 

Nelson and Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., decided their panel will request a broad intelligence community assessment about the ability of foreign powers to safeguard networked nuclear systems. "In this new world of cyber threats, we of course have to be responsible for ours, but we have to worry about those others on the planet that have a nuclear strike capability, of protecting theirs against some outside player coming in and suddenly taking over their command and control," Nelson said. 

Kehler told lawmakers that, based on recent piecemeal reviews, he is confident U.S. command and control systems and nuclear weapons platforms "do not have a significant vulnerability" that cause him to be concerned. He said that in the years since the Cold War, "we've had fairly decent transparency" with Russian government officials on missile capabilities and understand “they are very careful about the way they provide what we would call nuclear assurity as well.  This is also one of the reasons for why we would like to see additional transparency with China."

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