Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spends a considerable amount of time dealing with cybersecurity threats, including potential attacks on the nation’s infrastructure. But don’t ask her to detail the nation’s biggest cyber enemies.

“Oh, I don’t rank them, this isn’t basketball or something,” Napolitano said Thursday, earning her a laugh at the start of a Washington Post Live event on cybersecurity. “Threats are threats.”

Hackers have “come close”several times to shutting down elements of the nation’s infrastructure, she said, noting that Wall Street firms and transportation systems are frequent cyberattack targets.

“I think we all have to be concerned about a network intrusion that shuts down part of the nation’s infrastructure in such a fashion that it results in a loss of life,” she said.

Asked how many cyberattacks might have occurred over the course of her 45-minute Q&A session, Napolitano responded, “Thousands.”

The Department of Homeland Security is in the process of hiring about 1,000 cybersecurity specialists to combat the fast-evolving issue — and Napolitano said she would have “every cyber geek in the United States” working for her if she could.

The 1,000 hires may sound impressive, but it pales in comparison to the 3,000 specialists that the National Security Agency plans to hire to combat the issue by the end of fiscal 2012 — and the thousands more fighting cybercrime at an alphabet soup of other agencies.

But in the end, Napolitano said she believes that Homeland Security needs to serve as the nation’s “incident response center” in the event of a major attack.

Former CIA director Michael Hayden also spoke at the conference and described the ins and outs of cyber espionage efforts and some cyber attacks. Watch his comments below:

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

NSA is looking for a few good hackers

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