Leon Panetta, former Defense Secretary and former CIA head, speaks at the Asian Leadership Conference (ALC) in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, March 3, 2014. Panetta addressed a government cybersecurity symposium in Washington on Tuesday. (SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Former Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta on Tuesday urged the federal government to take cyber threats more seriously and to invest more in cyber security.

“I come back to this town and I get the sense that people have somehow given up,” Panetta said, addressing attendees at a government symposium organized by cybersecurity firm Symantec. Recent government shutdowns are an indication that policy makers are putting off a number of key decisions, said Panetta, who now serves as the chair for the Panetta Institute for Public Policy as part of the California State University System.

Despite reductions, the defense budget must include funding for cybersecurity precautions to prevent large scale events, potentially launched by aggressive nations, he said. He noted that both the public and private sectors must cooperate to strengthen cyber security measures in the United States.

“I think we’re kind of at a critical turning point in the 21st century,” he warned, noting policy makers could help the nation develop a more agile defensive force, “or we can be an America in decline, in constant crisis after crisis.”

During his tenure at the CIA, the agency experienced as many as 100,000 cyber attacks a day. If intruders gained access to electricity grids, transportation systems or other networks connected to the public, damage could rival that of Hurricane Sandy last year, he said.

“This is not just about hacking and identity theft,” Panetta said. Cyberspace “could also be the battlefield of the future”, and as threats escalate beyond individual targets, “there is the possibility of a cyber Pearl Harbor.”