Such attacks have “renewed concerns about still more destructive scenarios that could unfold” against the United States, he said in an address to business executives in New York. He asked them to “imagine the impact an attack like this would have on your company.”
Panetta’s remarks on the Middle East incidents were the first from any administration official acknowledging them. In the attack on Aramco, the virus replaced crucial system files with an image of a burning U.S. flag, he said. It also overwrote the files with “garbage” data, he said.
The Middle East cyber-incidents have prompted great concern inside national security agencies, with the military’s Cyber Command adding personnel to monitor for the possibility of follow-on attacks. U.S. intelligence and Middle Eastern diplomats have said they believe Iran carried out those attacks in retaliation for a Western oil embargo against Tehran, but other experts have expressed skepticism.
“It’s clear a number of state actors have grown their cyber-capabilities in recent years,” said a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak for the record. “We’re concerned about Russia and China, and we’re concerned about growing Iranian capabilities as well.”
Although there has been debate over the roles of various government agencies in cyberspace, Panetta made clear that it would be the Defense Department’s responsibility to defend the nation in that realm.
Under new rules of engagement for cyberwarfare, he said, the Pentagon’s role would extend to defending private-sector computers against a major attack. The conditions under which the rules would trigger a response are stringent, and must rise to the level of an “armed attack” that threatens significant physical destruction or loss of life, senior defense officials said.
Those cyber-rules, which represent the most comprehensive revision in seven years, are being finalized now, Panetta said. For the first time, military cyber-specialists would be able to immediately block malware outside the Pentagon’s networks in an effort to defend the private sector against an imminent, significant physical attack, The Post has reported. At present, such action requires special permission from the president.
Panetta said that “foreign cyber-actors are probing America’s critical infrastructure networks. They are targeting the computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants” and transportation systems. He said the government knows of “specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems” and that the intruders are trying to create advanced tools to attack the systems to cause panic, destruction and death.