Recent reports suggest that the U.S. government was likely engaged in two very sophisticated cyber attacks: one that spied on Iran's nuclear program and another that slowed it by destroying centrifuges. These attacks encourage a twinge of national pride in our cyber capabilities.
Yet there's a dark corollary to this news. Our enemies can use similarly sophisticated cyber tactics to attack the U.S. government and our private sector. Billions in intellectual property and state secrets are at risk, as well as the critical infrastructure that supports modern American life. And our highly networked society is probably the most vulnerable in the world. This is not a hypothetical threat, and it is growing.
Even our infant efforts to counter this threat will be severely set back unless Congress amends the current law that mandates drastic funding cuts to defense and other domestic spending. And Congress seems not to be inclined to act until a "lame duck session" after the November elections, if at all.
This failure would be a tragedy because the threat of cyber attack isn't looming on the horizon; it's already in our email inbox, our office and social networks, and possibly even our critical infrastructure such as our financial networks, power grid, and transportation and telecommunication systems.
The U.S. government and major companies report being attacked hundreds of thousands of times each day. Microsoft estimates that one in 14 downloads is some type of malware. And foreign governments are investing in new cyber espionage and cyber warfare units. Experts estimate that North Korea has as many as 1,000 cyber warfare agents working out of China and is recruiting more every day.
As the volume of cyber attacks is skyrocketing, so are the stakes. Today's hackers aren't content with simply shutting down websites or erasing computer hard drives. Hackers can now infiltrate networks and steal massive amounts of data. They've hacked the biggest tech, energy, financial services and even anti-virus companies. They even hacked the U.S. military's classified network, even though it isn't connected to the Internet. (The virus traveled via USB thumb drive.)
They've stolen emails, business plans, financial information and new product designs, costing our economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year. The most sophisticated attacks implant new malicious code in the critical programs that control heavy machinery, causing them to go haywire and paralyze entire power plants or factories.
The head of the CIA recently predicted that cyber attacks would surpass terrorism as our highest threat to national security. National security experts predict that, if a cyber attack destroyed the custom-built generators that drive our power supply, hackers could shut down large portions of the U.S. power grid for six months at a time. Thousands could die in major cities across the U.S.
This threat obviously demands strong government leadership and clear, well-funded policy. Yet, at $4 billion a year, the U.S. is spending less on cyber defense than on farm subsidies, demonstrating a misplaced sense of priorities — and even this limited funding could be cut in half as a consequence of the sequestration cuts put into effect as part of last year's deal to increase the federal debt limit.
These cuts could apply to every cybersecurity program across the board, for example slashing essential defenses for our electrical grid and air traffic control system. This would be a gift to cyber terrorists or Iranian hackers, who would jump at the chance to bring an entire U.S. city to its knees with a single keystroke.
The congressional impasse potentially follows the sad cliche that only disaster can spur Washington to action. In the decade preceding 9/11, intelligence budgets had dropped to a historical low. Leaders in Washington seem prepared to make the same mistakes with cyber security, despite recent warnings from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that a cyber attack could cause "the next Pearl Harbor."
America has never been shy about meeting its most formidable challenges: defeating fascism, building an interstate highway system, or putting a man on the moon. We must not allow blind budgetary fiat to curtail our maturing defenses against one of the gravest threats to our economic and physical security.
We need to solve the debt problem by attacking its core while also investing in that which makes us strong and secure.
Henry Cooper served as the Strategic Defense Initiative director in the George H. W. Bush administration and as President Ronald Reagan's ambassador and chief negotiator at the Geneva defense and space talks with the Soviet Union. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun