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An exclusive look behind the scenes of the U.S. military’s cyber defense

At U.S. Cyber Command, cyber protection teams defend the Pentagon's networks from adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, and fight thousands of non-state actors like terrorist groups and professional hackers. Special correspondent Mike Cerre got exclusive access to a new generation of cyber warriors.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, returning to the murky world of cyber-attacks, and defense, the newest U.S. military command is responsible not for a piece of land or air, but cyberspace.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre has this exclusive inside view of the men and women protecting the military's digital networks at United States Cyber Command.

  • Mike Cerre:

    It looks and sounds like every other stateside military base, far from the front lines around the globe. But Fort Meade, Maryland, home base to the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, the military's newest combatant command, is fighting a war every day.

    Admiral Mike Rogers commands both the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command.

  • Adm. Mike Rogers:

    Today, we face threats that have increased in sophistication, magnitude, intensity, volume and velocity.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The Internet was largely created by the Defense Department in the late '60s, primarily for its research and development operations. Now, like every other wired institution, it depends on it for everything it does.

    As a result, the Defense Department's information network is now targeted by nearly 40 million malicious e-mails everyday.

    Colonel Paul Craft's cyber-protection teams defend the network from this top secret operations center called the JSOC.

  • Col. Paul Craft:

    We do not want the enemy to get a foothold into the Department of Defense's networks, to gain or maintain any terrain, just like they would in land.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The "NewsHour" was granted exclusive access, under conditions we not identify team members or the cyber-defense technologies used.

    Vice Admiral Nancy Norton is the commander of the Joint Force Headquarters DoDIN, which is responsible for protecting the military's network.

  • Vice Adm. Nancy Norton:

    The national defense strategy has made pretty clear that we have near peer competitors in cyberspace from Russia and China. North Korea and Iran are also routinely working to gain a competitive advantage by getting into our networks.

  • Mike Cerre:

    In addition to these adversaries, U.S. military cyber-warriors fight thousands of non-state actors, terrorist groups, and professional hackers, all committed to cracking the firewalls of cyber's first and presumably largest distributed network, now used for everything from combat operations and to military health care.

  • Col. Paul Craft:

    Everything starts with a thing called an indicator of compromise. It could be a malicious spear-phishing e-mail. It could be an intrusion. It could be a packet that looks malformed for some reason, that doesn't look right, that could do something malicious to a network.

    The simplest thing is to block it. But if they're in your house, it's about getting that person out of your house and making sure we knew what they touched. And the network is again restored — hardened and restored to normal.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Once inside, hackers can disrupt a network's operations, like they did last year to the British Health System, forcing hospitals to down. Or they can steal confidential information, like Equifax's credit reports on more than 145 million Americans.

    So far, the most serious cyber-security breaches of U.S. defense and intelligence networks were inside jobs. Army PFC Bradley Manning, who now identifies as Chelsea, copied and released nearly a million classified documents.

    The leaking of the NSA's surveillance techniques and other classified material by a subcontractor, Edward Snowden. There are also accidental security breaches, like the careless use of a flash drive by a military unit in the Middle East in 2008 that temporarily created an opening into the Defense Department's network.

    These cyber-teams are drawn from all the services and ranks. Some were trained by the military. Others were recruited for their cyber-skills.

  • Col. Paul Craft:

    It's not like fighting a war in another domain, where you deploy troops, you fight, you go home. Conflict in the cyber-domain is constant.

  • Man:

    I can shut down your power grids. I can paralyze your infrastructure.

  • Mike Cerre:

    A line of code buried in this Army recruiting ad generated nearly 800,000 hacking attempts on a fake military Web site. The 1 percent cracked the site were invited to join the military's cyber-warfare team.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Training and retaining this new generation of cyber-warriors is an ongoing challenge.

  • Woman:

    I could walk out today and get a very easily six-figure salary. It's not about the money. It's about the pride in your job and what you do for the American people.

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    The challenge we have isn't recruiting. The challenge is retention.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart is a deputy commander with U.S. Cyber Command.

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    The metaphor I like to use in this space, it's like playing hockey. You're constantly on the move in both offense and defense. And it's fast-paced, it's hectic, and one goal can change the outcome.

  • Mike Cerre:

    General Stewart can't elaborate on Cyber Com's offensive tactics, like those recently used to try to disrupt ISIS' online recruiting and media operation, or what, if any involvement the U.S. had with the widely reported, but officially denied cyber-attack on an Iranian nuclear facility, using a software virus called Stuxnet which disabled critical equipment.

  • Peter Singer:

    What was created with Stuxnet wasn't just an operation to sabotage Iranian nuclear research. It was a new kind of weapon.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Peter singer, with the new America Foundation, and other defense analysts believe the Iranian attack to be a major turning point in cyber-warfare.

  • Peter Singer:

    They created a weapon, something that caused physical damage, but it was unlike every other in history, in that it was computer software. It was a bunch of zeros and ones.

  • Mike Cerre:

    But it is a more recent cyber-attack, on the 2016 presidential election, that is now the concern.

    Detecting, let alone stopping the Russian meddling, wasn't Cyber Command's job, since it was largely executed on Facebook and other public social media networks, the military is prohibited from intervening with.

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    Do you want the intelligence community to work within the civilian sector?

  • Mike Cerre:

    Do you think the civilian elements of this space have the capacity to defend them at the level you can defend?

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    Yes.

  • Mike Cerre:

    You think they can?

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    Yes.

  • Mike Cerre:

    So, they don't need your help?

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    This is an issue of priority. This is an issue of some resources, but it's an issue of focus.

  • Peter Singer:

    That's actually what has clouded the debate over 2016, is you have these intelligence agencies seeing things coming in, seeing things hit American political institutions, but, of course, they're not supposed to be involved in American political questions.

    And then, on top of it, it throws them into a partisan debate. And that's why it's been so difficult.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The Senate Armed Services Committee recently challenged Cyber Command's Admiral Mike Rogers on the U.S. response to the Russian interference.

  • Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.:

    Essentially, we have not taken on the Russians yet?

  • Adm. Mike Rogers:

    It's probably fair to say that we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing.

  • Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart:

    This is not just about the Chinese. This is about the Russians. This is about the Iranians. These are all our potential adversaries who understand the things that underpin Western liberal democracies and are going after it. That's what keeps me awake.

  • Mike Cerre:

    In the cyber-realm, an attack can dismantle infrastructure and networks. It can also destroy faith in institutions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Mike Cerre, reporting from Fort Meade, Maryland.

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