updated 12:36 am EDT, Fri October 12, 2012
Pre-emptive strike allegedly allowed under pending executive order
In what could be called the first major policy speech by a defense secretary on cyber security, US military head Leon Panetta said that the US military could be called upon to act preemptively if it detects an imminent threat of cyber attack such as that perpetrated against the White House Military Office. During the remarks made at a gathering of business leaders in New York, Panetta decried insufficient investment by US business leaders in internet security measures, and mentioned that a Presidential executive order was being considered "while we wait for Congress to act."
Panetta warned that foreign government-backed hackers were targeting computer systems regulating chemical, electrical, and water plants, as well as transportation system controls. "We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems. We also know that they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic, and destruction, and even the loss of life," Panetta said.
Giving an example, Panetta recounted the August attack on Aramco, the Saudi Arabian state-run oil company. "All told, the Shamoon virus was probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date," he said. A US official briefing reporters on the speech said the US knew who carried out the Mideast attacks on energy companies, but declined to provide the information, citing national security and intelligence sourcing concerns.
"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," Panetta said. "If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us."