Pentagon Official Warns of Risk of Cyber Attacks

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009; 6:31 PM

The head of the Pentagon's Strategic Command warned Congress today that the United States is vulnerable to cyberattacks "across the spectrum" and that more needs to be done to defend against the potential of online strikes, which could "potentially threaten not only our military networks, but also our critical national networks."

But Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton made clear to a House Armed Services subcommittee that he has not been asked to defend most government Web sites nor the commercial and public infrastructure networks whose destruction could cripple the nation.

Chilton's command, instead, has the responsibility "to operate and defend the military networks only and be prepared to attack in cyberspace when directed," he said, adding, "I think the broader question is, who should best do this for the other parts of America, where we worry about defending power grids, our financial institutions, our telecommunications, our transportation networks, the networks that support them."

The responsibility of protecting civilian networks currently rests with the Department of Homeland Security, but Chilton's testimony comes at a time when a presidential-chartered 60-day study of cybersecurity is underway. A report from that study is expected next month.

Asked whether Homeland Security's cyber role fits within his command structure, Chilton responded, "It does not fit at all today." But that may change after the 60-day review is completed, he added.

As Stratcom commander, Chilton has responsibility not only to operate and defend military networks, but also to prepare cyber attack capabilities against an enemy when a president orders it.

Operational control over both, Chilton said, has been delegated to Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency -- the intelligence agency that deals with the monitoring and intercepting of electronic messages. NSA, according to Chilton, already has a role in information security, and the agency's support "has been instrumental in our efforts to operate and particularly to defend our networks," he said.

Combining oversight of cyber defense and offense made sense, Chilton said, "because they're so interconnected. . . . As you consider offensive operations, you want to make sure your defense are up."

Also, he said, giving NSA those jobs adds the intelligence support the Pentagon needs to defend its networks.

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