Leon Panetta rolled out the big guns, as it were, calling this “a pre-9/11 moment” in issuing an urgent call to bolster the nation’s cyberdefenses. The secretary of defense warned in a speech last week that the country increasingly is the target of sophisticated efforts, traceable to foreign groups and individuals, to gain control of computer networks that control vital national systems. He cited recent attempts to disable the websites of various banks and security breaches of computer systems that control water, electric and chemical plants and the national transportation system.
At a time when ever more of personal and governmental functions are linked by cybernetworks, there is no denying the threat to national interests, particularly from Iran, China and Russia, or the crippling damage that could be inflicted by a successful attack. Panetta sought to reassure that the Defense Department is building a robust defense in partnership with the FBI and the departments of State and Homeland Security and has improved significantly its capacity to take defensive measures. He also pointed to an enhanced capacity to go on the offensive against cyber adversaries.
Yet for all that, there is no illusion the nation’s cyberdefenses are anywhere near adequate. Panetta’s warning thus is as much a chiding of Congress for failure to provide crucial legislative support. The Senate failed this summer to bring to a vote a bill sponsored by Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins that, among other things, would have required the sharing of information between government and private industry, a collaboration that is essential to protect the nation’s infrastructure.