Cyber-attacks were a hot topic during a national defense forum Saturday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, where panelists delivered both good news and bad.
The bad news is that “the cyber threat is growing and more acute over time,” said Marcel Lettre, U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
The good news is that the potential for a significant cyber-attack on the nation’s infrastructure from terrorist groups or foreign countries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea is still low, he said.
Nonetheless, “this is a serious threat that we face,” Lettre said at a panel discussion titled “Innovation and Technology in Countering Cyber Attacks.”
Cyber-attacks even came up at another panel discussion about the lessons learned from the 1941 Japanese attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which led to the U.S. entry into World War II. The 75th anniversary of the attack, which killed 2,403 Americans, is Wednesday.
Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force, said that because of technological advances in early warning systems, she doubts a large-scale Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack could occur today.
But cyber attacks are another thing, she said.
“This is where we have some readiness concerns,” she said.
One of her co-panelists, Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the , concurred.
“We’re fighting in cyber right now — every day,” he said. “So I agree, the next fight will be different” than a Pearl Harbor-like attack.
Lettre was asked by panel discussion moderator Jill Aitoro of Defense News what advice he will give to his successor in the incoming Trump administration about the threat of cyber-attacks.
“I would essentially encourage my counterparts who will be coming in in the weeks ahead to really systematically look at that threat picture … very early on with the focus on really articulating the right approach to developing a cyber-deterrent capability and policy and practices,” he said.
Aitoro asked Lettre if, once President-elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20, he should send “a strong message” to Russia about not launching cyber-attacks against the U.S.
“I think we do need to have a clear message for Russia and for all other actors in cyberspace about what we view as within bounds and out of bounds,” he said.
Lettre and his fellow panelists said one key to deterring cyber-attacks is for the government and the defense industry to attract top computer science college graduates.
“We need the best people and the best technology,” said Raj Shah, managing director of Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a Defense Department organization.
Another key is greater sharing and cooperation between the government and private industry, the panelists said.
Asked by Aitoro about cyber-operations launched by the U.S., Lettre declined to comment, saying it was a “very sensitive” area.
During his panel discussion, Neller was asked by moderator Phil Stewart, a military affairs reporter for Reuters, his thoughts on retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis being selected by Trump to be the next secretary of defense.
Neller said he worked for Mattis twice in his career.
“He certainly has the capability, the intellect, the knowledge, the drive for this position,” Neller said. “I believe he’ll do a very good job.”
Mattis, if confirmed, would become only the second former general to be secretary of defense. He would need a waiver from Congress because federal law stipulates that former military officers must be retired for at least seven years before they can become defense secretary. Mattis has been retired less than four years.
Two former defense secretaries, Dick Cheney — who is also a former vice president — and Leon Panetta, were scheduled to appear together in their own panel discussion later Saturday.
Current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was scheduled to speak at the forum’s closing session.
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