Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Says Cyberattacks Could Paralyze the Country Like Another Pearl Harbor

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks with a congressional subcommittee on budget cuts Wednesday. (Photo: DOD/Glenn Fawcett)

In pleading with Congress Wednesday against automatic defense budget cuts, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also warned of another crippling situation like Pearl Harbor. It won’t come in the form of bombers and torpedo planes though but as hackers and worms of the cyber variety with the ability to cripple U.S. infrastructure.

CNS News reports Panetta saying that those with the capability to launch a cyberattack would be able to “paralyze” the United States. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Panetta to clarify:

“You said something that just kind of went over everybody’s head, I think, that there’s a Pearl Harbor in the making here. You’re talking about shutting down financial systems, releasing chemicals from chemical plants, releasing water from dams, shutting down power systems that can affect the very survival of the nation. What’s the likelihood in the next five years that one of these major events will occur?”

To this Panetta responded simply by saying that the “technological capability” to send our country into a mode like that of Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack is already available now. Panetta’s references to “the next Pearl Harbor” echo sentiments he shared last year with regard to cyberattacks, according to CNS news.

In June 2011, while being confirmed as Defense Secretary, Panetta said to the panel, “The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber attack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems.”

Continuing to probe on Wednesday, Graham asked about the risk level, which Panetta said was high, especially as the technology develops and the “will” to use it becomes more apparent.

“I’m very concerned that the potential in cyber to be able to cripple our power grid, to be able to cripple our government systems, to be able to cripple our financial system would virtually paralyze this country,” Panetta said. “And, as far as I’m concerned, that represents the potential for another Pearl Harbor as far as the kind of attack that we could be the target of using cyber.”

Those in the United States — both the government and private industry — are already the targets of thousands of attacks per day, according to Panetta. With that, he notes the importance of improving safety of systems in not only the defense sector but the private sector as well.

(Related: ‘Counterterrorism czar’ says every U.S. company has been infiltrated by China)

Earlier this year, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act (CISPA) was introduced as proposed legislation that would put in place the infrastructure for private companies to share information with the federal government on the Internet to help prevent electronic attacks from cybercriminals, foreign governments and terrorists. The Cybersecurity Act of 2012, sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) was mentioned as well. At this point, CISPA has been passed with bipartisan support in the House and still awaits a Senate vote. The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 has not yet been voted upon.

CISPA has been met with some backlash with those against the proposed legislation saying the language is overly broad and they fear violations of the anti-trust law by the government.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey weighed in his support of CISPA during Wednesday’s hearing but also said the military is looking to develop “rules of engagement” to respond to cyberattacks and threats, according to CNS News.

Watch CNS’ footage of the dialogue here:

The Pentagon faces cuts of about $500 billion in projected spending over 10 years on top of the $492 billion that President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans already agreed to in last summer’s deficit-cutting budget.

Dempsey said the cuts would mean fewer troops, the possible cancellation of major weapons and the disruption of operations around the world.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.