Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s call to arms on cyber security Thursday highlights the urgency of the Washington National Guard’s effort to get its citizen soldiers to work protecting utility and municipal digital networks.
Panetta in a New York speech described efforts by foreign organizations to gain control of domestic computers running electric, chemical, water and transportation networks.
“We also know they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic, destruction and even the loss of life,” he said.
“An aggressor nation or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals,” he said. “They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
The precedent for these attacks as John Reed of Foreign Policy notes comes from the 2010 Stuxnet virus, which U.S. and Israeli engineers reportedly developed to destroy centrifuges used by the Iranian government to create materials for nuclear weapons.
Stuxnet is believed to be the first cyber attack used to damage physical structures in another country, as The New York Times reported in June.
Panetta discussed revising the Pentagon’s cyber security rules to allow U.S. entities more leeway to trace attacks and respond to them.
“Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and to hold them accountable for actions that may try to harm America,” he said. “For these kinds of scenarios, the department has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace.”
Last week, we reported that the Washington National Guard is embracing a call to apply its cyber security resources for domestic purposes, such as protecting state government networks or utilities and ports. The effort draws mostly from the Guard’s 194th Regional Support Wing, which has squadrons dedicated to cyber warfare.
“Just as ‘Business X’ needs the National Guard to come in and fill sand bags, ‘Business X’ might need to call the National Guard if it’s overwhelmed on the cyber side,” Lt. Col. Gent Welsh told us.