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Mike McConnell on how to win the cyber-war we're losing

Of course, deterrence can be effective when the enemy is a state with an easily identifiable government and location. It is less successful against criminal groups or extremists who cannot be readily traced, let alone deterred through sanctions or military action.

There are many organizations (including al-Qaeda) that are not motivated by greed, as with criminal organizations, or a desire for geopolitical advantage, as with many states. Rather, their worldview seeks to destroy the systems of global commerce, trade and travel that are undergirded by our cyber-infrastructure. So deterrence is not enough; preemptive strategies might be required before such adversaries launch a devastating cyber-attack.

We preempt such groups by degrading, interdicting and eliminating their leadership and capabilities to mount cyber-attacks, and by creating a more resilient cyberspace that can absorb attacks and quickly recover. To this end, we must hammer out a consensus on how to best harness the capabilities of the National Security Agency, which I had the privilege to lead from 1992 to 1996. The NSA is the only agency in the United States with the legal authority, oversight and budget dedicated to breaking the codes and understanding the capabilities and intentions of potential enemies. The challenge is to shape an effective partnership with the private sector so information can move quickly back and forth from public to private -- and classified to unclassified -- to protect the nation's critical infrastructure.

We must give key private-sector leaders (from the transportation, utility and financial arenas) access to information on emerging threats so they can take countermeasures. For this to work, the private sector needs to be able to share network information -- on a controlled basis -- without inviting lawsuits from shareholders and others.

Obviously, such measures must be contemplated very carefully. But the reality is that while the lion's share of cybersecurity expertise lies in the federal government, more than 90 percent of the physical infrastructure of the Web is owned by private industry. Neither side on its own can mount the cyber-defense we need; some collaboration is inevitable. Recent reports of a possible partnership between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts -- and shared challenges -- that we are likely to see in the future.

No doubt, such arrangements will muddy the waters between the traditional roles of the government and the private sector. We must define the parameters of such interactions, but we should not dismiss them. Cyberspace knows no borders, and our defensive efforts must be similarly seamless.

Ultimately, to build the right strategy to defend cyberspace, we need the equivalent of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Project Solarium. That 1953 initiative brought together teams of experts with opposing views to develop alternative strategies on how to wage the Cold War. The teams presented their views to the president, and Eisenhower chose his preferred approach -- deterrence. We now need a dialogue among business, civil society and government on the challenges we face in cyberspace -- spanning international law, privacy and civil liberties, security, and the architecture of the Internet. The results should shape our cybersecurity strategy.

We prevailed in the Cold War through strong leadership, clear policies, solid alliances and close integration of our diplomatic, economic and military efforts. We backed all this up with robust investments -- security never comes cheap. It worked, because we had to make it work.

Let's do the same with cybersecurity. The time to start was yesterday.

Mike McConnell was the director of the National Security Agency in the Clinton administration and the director of national intelligence during President George W. Bush's second term. A retired Navy vice admiral, he is executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, which consults on cybersecurity for the private and public sector.


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