Cyber Command delayed
As threats to Pentagon computer networks from foreign governments, criminal organizations and private hackers continue to grow, the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding up creation of a new Cyber Command.
A spokesman for the U.S. Strategic Command, which will be in charge of the new command, said the committee “has raised a number of detailed questions regarding the department’s plans for U.S. Cybercom, including its [National Security Agency] relationship, and indicated that it would like all answers provided before considering [NSA Director] Lt. Gen. [Keith] Alexander’s nomination.”
Gen. Alexander has been nominated to four-star rank for the new command which will be located at Fort Meade, where NSA currently has its headquarters.
The issue is rekindling a long-simmering dispute within government circles over whether cyber-activities should be intelligence-driven or military-centered.
Former NSA Director Mike McConnell stated recently in an op-ed article that the U.S. currently is fighting a cyberwar and is losing, because as the most wired nation, U.S. networks are the most targeted and cyberdefenses are “woefully lacking.”
DoD officials recently met with committee staff members and “the department is committed to answering any additional questions raised by the committee,” said Lt. Cmdr. Steve Curry, a Stratcom spokesman. “DoD looks forward to establishing this critical command as soon as the Senate confirms Lt. Gen. Alexander as its first commander.”
Cmdr. Curry said that “improving the protection of military information networks in the 21st century is an urgent priority for DoD.”
Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Committee Chairman Carl Levin, said the panel is awaiting responses on the issue and will schedule a confirmation hearing after the committee’s questions are answered.
Security specialists in and out of government are expressing worries about a recently published technical paper by a Chinese researcher revealing how the continental United States could be hit with a cascading failure of the electrical power grid. The security experts fear Chinese cyberwarriors will pick up on the strategic vulnerability.
The paper, “Cascade-based attack vulnerability on the U.S. power grid,” was written by Jian-Wei Wang and Li-Li Rong, and details how a power-grid failure would turn out the lights — and everything else reliant on electricity — throughout the country.
The New York Times on March 20 reported on the paper and interviewed one of its authors, Mr. Wang, who claimed he was innocent of any cyberwarfare motives. The researcher was quoted as claiming his interest was concern for safety and protection of electric grids, and that use of the word “attack” was apparently not meant in the military or cyberwarfare sense.
However, concerns that the U.S. power grid could easily be attacked and disrupted via computer go back over a decade to the Joint Staff military exercise called Eligible Receiver.
The exercise in June 1998 used a group of National Security Agency computer specialists who posed as North Korean hackers and who had as their goal the shutting down of Hawaii’s electrical power grid, and thus the command and control networks, used by the headquarters of the Pacific Command.
Using laptops and software obtained from the Internet the hackers easily demonstrated that they could cripple military and civilian computer networks but the surprise was that they were able to demonstrate during the two-week exercise that hackers could have disrupted the entire U.S. electric power grid.
Securing the U.S. power grid, which is held mostly by private companies, has been a priority for U.S. cybersecurity officials, many of whom regard China as one of the most significant players in a future cyberwar and believe China likely would attack the computer-controlled power grid in any conflict.
Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence official who was quoted in the New York Times article expressing his concern about the Chinese paper, said the newspaper report unfairly juxtaposed his comments with those of other experts who dismissed the security worries using terms such as “paranoia” and conspiracy theories about Chinese hacking.
Mr. Wortzel, a Chinese-language speaker, said a significant part of his interview with the newspaper was left out.
“I emphasized that for about five years I had followed similar ‘neutral academic’ discussions about how to intercept a satellite in orbit written by Chinese researchers, and then the [People’s Liberation Army] ran its ASAT (anti-satellite missile) test” in January 2007, Mr. Wortzel said in an interview.
“Also, for another few years, I followed ‘academic’ discussions by Chinese researchers on how to hit a moving aircraft carrier with a maneuvering ballistic missile warhead, and, surprise, now the PLA is about to accomplish that,” he said.
Rice looking ahead?
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is said to be angling for a promotion, according to State Department sources.
Ms. Rice, a trusted confidante of President Obama, is said to be thinking about her future as either a replacement for National Security Adviser James L. Jones, or possibly as a successor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both of those high-powered government positions have an average career span of about two years.
The sources said Ms. Rice’s heart is in Washington and not at the U.S. Mission at Manhattan’s Turtle Bay, home of U.N. headquarters. The post of U.N. ambassador traditionally has been a stepping stone for higher office.
One State Department official dismissed the idea that Ms. Rice has her eyes set on higher office.
Reached for comment, Ms. Rice would say only “I love serving as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and am not thinking about any other job.”
Gay ban intrigue
Republicans, based on an informal vote assessment, do not believe liberal Democrats have the votes in the House Armed Services Committee to overturn the military’s ban on open gays in the ranks, according to special correspondent Rowan Scarborough.
“Look at the makeup of the committee,” said one Republican staffer, noting the panel attracts pro-defense, conservative-to-moderate Democrats. “We’re making a pretty good guess it will not survive the committee.”
If true, there are still legislative avenues for Democrats to meet President Obama’s pledge to repeal the ban, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Backers of the repeal bill, led by Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat, can offer it as an amendment on the House floor to the committee’s 2011 defense authorization bill, or present it as separate legislation.
“We still believe they are short of a majority vote,” said the staffer of the 216 votes needed for passage.
In the Senate, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, talks as if he has enough votes to include it in his panel’s defense authorization bill. If he does, he believes the budget bill will be immune from any Republican filibuster when it reaches the floor.
Still not settled is the timing. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates annoyed gay rights groups by ordering a lengthy study of how lifting the ban will affect combat readiness and military families. With a Dec. 1 deadline, it will be difficult for anti-ban lawmakers to demand a vote before members know what the study says.
But Democrats have shown, with their determination to enact health care overhaul, that they will resort to unorthodox ways to get a bill passed.
For example, the Senate will sometimes refrain from putting hyper-controversial legislation, such as gay ban repeal, into a committee bill. That way senators can debate it free-standing and have an up-or-down floor vote.
But that would leave it more open to a filibuster, something Mr. Levin is said to be hoping to avoid.