In the age of terrorism and the Internet, threats to the United States' national security come not just from those wielding bombs and guns, but unconventional weapons – such as a keyboard and a mouse.
The announcement comes less than a week after President Obama's pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, raised the issue of protecting vital national security interests online during a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. During the hearing, Panetta uttered the phrase "cyber-attack" in the same breath as such threats as al Qaeda and the potential of a nuclear armed North Korea.
"What is al Qaeda plotting in the tribal areas of Pakistan? What will it take to get Iran off of its dangerous nuclear path? What will be the keys to long-term stability in Afghanistan and in Iraq? Will North Korea give up its weapons program? Can we defend our networks against cyber-attack?" he said. "Our first responsibility is to prevent surprise.
"We know that our communications networks are vulnerable to malicious activity and cyber threats. But we don't know what our adversaries are planning and what damage they are capable of inflicting."
The 60-day interagency review will include advisors from the National and Homeland Security Councils and will be led by Melissa Hathaway, who served as Cyber Coordination Executive to the Director of National Intelligence under President Bush. In the Obama administration, Hathaway will get a new title – albeit an equally obtuse one – as Acting Senior Director for Cyberspace for the National Security and Homeland Security Councils.
Mr. Obama's appointment of Hathaway fulfills a promise he made on the campaign trail last summer.
"We need to prevent terrorists or spies from hacking into our national security networks," he said in a July 16, 2008, speech in Indiana. "We need to build the capacity to identify, isolate and respond to any cyber-attack. And we need to develop new standards for the cyber-security that protects our most important infrastructure – from electrical grids to sewage systems; from air traffic control to our markets."
The review announced today is aimed at achieving those goals, without trampling privacy rights, according to the announcement.
"The national security and economic health of the United States depend on the security, stability, and integrity of our Nation's cyberspace, both in the public and private sectors. The president is confident that we can protect our nation's critical cyber infrastructure while at the same time adhering to the rule of law and safeguarding privacy rights and civil liberties," said Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan.