The Cyber Strikes Back: Pentagon to go on offense against cyberattacks

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The Defense Department is building an “offensive” cyberforce to counter increasing threats by hackers, criminals and foreign agents to the nation’s computer networks, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command told a Senate panel Tuesday.

“I would like to be clear that this team, this ‘defend the nation team’ is not a defensive team,” Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander said. “This is an offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace.”

U.S. officials typically do not openly discuss “offensive” U.S. capabilities or identify potential cybertargets and adversaries.

Gen. Alexander said his command is creating 13 teams for that offensive capability, which would work outside of the country.

“They’re the teams that would go on the offense to defend our nation,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “So if we were attacked, you’d need somebody to counter that attack.”

“Think of it: If a missile comes at us, you knock down that missile. … That’s what I mean by offensive,” he said.

The general said 27 other teams are being created to support combatant commands in their planning for offensive cybercapabilities and another set of teams would defend military networks in cyberspace.

A third of the new teams will be ready for operations by September, another third by September 2014 and the final third by September 2015, Gen. Alexander said.

The announcement of the new cyberforce came less than a month after private U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant Inc. reported hundreds of attacks against U.S. and foreign companies emanating from a building in Shanghai, China, that also houses the People’s Liberation Army cyberunit.

“China’s massive campaign to steal technology, business practices, intellectual property and business strategies through cyberspace continues,” Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, said during the hearing’s opening remarks.

Mr. Levin said that several reports “leave little doubt that China’s actions are a serious threat to our nation’s economic well-being and to our security. It’s long past time when the United States and our allies who are also being attacked in this way should be imposing costs and penalties on China for their behavior.”

Gen. Alexander said that the U.S. intelligence community in the past seven years has increased its ability to determine which Chinese agencies and companies have accessed U.S. intellectual property.

“I can give you specific examples in a classified setting,” he told Mr. Levin.

Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified Tuesday beside Gen. Alexander.

“The ongoing theft of the nation’s critical commercial, civil and unclassified military data by foreign intelligence and security services continues to erode U.S. economic and national security and reduce the competitive edge of U.S. businesses,” Gen. Kehler said.

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