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Pentagon Gears Up for the Digital Battlefield

July 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Department of Defense is gearing up for a different kind of conflict -- on the digital battlefield -- with a new cybersecurity strategy.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, the Pentagon’s newest battle plan for cyberspace.

After decades preparing for all-out war with the Soviets, eventually shifting to counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department is now gearing up for a new kind of conflict on the digital battlefield. The risk of a cyber-attack on government computer networks, power grids and pipelines and commercial interests, like financial networks, has grown rapidly, as Internet usage expands.

The U.S. military now records tens of millions of attempts to invade its networks every year. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn revealed today that one invasion by an unspecified foreign government led to the theft of 24,000 files of sensitive data in March from a defense industry computer network.

Lynn said the attack underscored the need for the Pentagon’s new strategy for operating in cyberspace released today. Among the initiatives it outlines: use new methods to defend the military’s vast networks and systems and work with the government and private sectors and international partners to improve security.

Lynn said the U.S. reserves the right to respond with conventional weapons to a grave cyber-attack, but that the strategy’s focus lies elsewhere.

WILLIAM LYNN, United States deputy secretary of defense: Rather than rely on the threat of retaliation alone to deter attacks in cyberspace, we aim to change our adversaries’ incentives in a more fundamental way. If an attack will not have its intended effect, those who wish us harm will have less reason to target us through cyberspace in the first place.

RAY SUAREZ: A cyber-command was established two years ago, but the Pentagon and Obama administration have sought to de-emphasize a potential militarization of cyberspace. There’s one reason for that approach that stands out, according to Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency. He spoke with the NewsHour’s Spencer Michels last year.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, (RET.) former CIA director: There was a survey done not too many months ago. They asked the citizens of some cyber-savvy nations around the world, who do you fear most in the cyber-domain? And, quite interestingly, we were number one.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. does have a reserve of cyber-weapons it can use to respond to attacks. Some resemble an elaborate computer virus dubbed Stuxnet that spread in 2010. Its targets included centrifuges at Iranian nuclear facilities, and thousands of the machines were ruined.

That attack triggered a warning from the one-time United Nations inspector Hans Blix, who had monitored Iraq’s weapons program.

HANS BLIX, former United Nations weapons inspector: This computer virus that affects centrifuges, may affect centrifuges, this is a very terrible warning. It is like a new biological warfare, inserting viruses into computers. If it can be in a centrifuge factory, it could be in somewhere else very sensitive.

WILLIAM LYNN: The problem is the network is global.

RAY SUAREZ: There are calls for a more aggressive U.S. approach. Marine Gen. James Cartwright said today the military will have to do more than simply improve digital defenses, if it hopes to break the cycle of attacks.