U.S. must strut cyber might to stop attacks, Cartwright says

Adversaries need to see the nation has the goods and the guts to execute a successful cyberattack if provoked, retired general says.

The United States must frighten adversaries by displaying an arsenal of operational hacking weapons to fight cyber threats, said retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, who crafted the Pentagon’s current cyber policy before retiring last summer.

Some war hawks say the Defense Department should assault opponents publicly to stop hackers, but the department’s July 2011 strategy for operating in cyberspace takes a “deterrence” approach of dissuading enemies from attacking by signaling the strength of U.S. network protections. Cartwright, arguably one of the most tech-savvy leaders to have served at the Pentagon, said an effective deterrence plan requires signaling offensive measures, too.

“You have to scare them. You have to convince them that there is a price for any action that is counter to good order and discipline,” he said Monday evening at The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. “That means you need an offensive capability.”

The United States should demonstrate a balance of offensive and defensive maneuvers, said Cartwright, who now sits on the board of directors of defense contractor Raytheon and serves as an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“An airplane generally can drop bombs, shoot missiles -- that’s credible,” he said, explaining that the world knows the United States has kinetic tools capable of exerting physical force under appropriate checks and balances. “We have not gotten to that level, we are moving to that direction in cyber.”

To establish credibility that America has the will and means to execute a cyberattack, Defense has begun simulating large-scale network attacks on “cyber ranges.”

“At some point, we have to demonstrate the willingness to use it in national security. It doesn’t mean we attack somebody,” Cartwright said. “If we are attacked, we have to be able to say to somebody ‘I know who you are. I can figure it out. Even if I don’t know who you are --I will find you eventually, and if I do, then I will remain proportional in my response and timely, but I will respond.”

Time is critical, according to Cartwright, who expects a life-threatening incident to occur in the near future, perhaps in the civilian space. If the computers supporting a car or tank are tampered with, the driver can typically pull over or get out of the vehicle. But “there are venues in transportation in particular where that’s not the case. In airplanes, it’s really hard to pull over and park,” he said.

When breaches start to endanger people’s lives, in real time, it may make sense for police to enter private property in “hot pursuit,” without a warrant, Cartwright said. “That’s coming -- this nation will take that issue on within the next year,” he forecasted.

Unlike Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who frequently predicts "the next Pearl Harbor" could be a cyberattack on the power grid, Cartwright does not worry as much about lights going out due to a cyber strike. He acknowledged that different segments of the population experience cyber threats in their own ways, including the national security and business communities. “If you’re a member of the business community, or the industrial base, there is no doubt in your mind that you are losing intellectual capital very quickly -- investments in research and development that are prematurely taken from you and applied somewhere else,” he said.

Other observations by Cartwright:

  • Nobody wants to hear this but anti-virus “patches” meant to immunize computers against software bugs actually make hacking easier. What happens is a security company applies new coding on top of the flaw to fix it -- creating yet another code to attack. Breaking a code will “cost the offender almost nothing,” while for “the defender, it costs a lot.” The “basic surface area is increased every time you patch your software.”
  • Any safeguards built into an airplane’s computer now likely will be outsmarted by attackers before the 30-year lifespan of the jet is over. Aviation will require continuous and expensive protections.
  • The cost and benefit of an ongoing public-private partnership that shares classified threat intelligence with military contractors should be evaluated before the Homeland Security Department opens the program to non-defense industries.

    On Friday, the Pentagon announced all Defense vendors are now eligible for the program that was tested on a small group during summer 2011. “At the end of this -- let’s just say that it’s wildly successful -- then I have to turn back to DHS [and ask], ‘What is it you want us to protect? Is this something we give to everybody? Is it something we give only to critical activities? Who’s going to bear the cost of all these clearances?’ There’s some questions that have to be answered once you get the process down.”

Watch the video:

Fast forward to the 8:50 mark for the main section of the discussion.