Spy Chief Gives Stark New Warnings on National Security

Al Qaeda is still a major threat, but cybersecurity is also a growing concern.

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The nation's top counterterrorism officials yesterday warned that attacking the United States in the next three to six months remains a "top priority" for al Qaeda, but they also offered a new and expansive view of the threats posed to the cyberworld.

Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, CIA chief Leon Panetta, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that the recent uptick in al Qaeda plots was evidence of a "certain" desire to make an attack on the U.S. homeland, an assault that they surmised could come within the next six months.

At the same hearing, Blair, country's top intelligence officer, also talked extensively about the dangers posed by hackers and cybercriminals in the annual assessment of threats to the United States. He will testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence today. "Malicious cyberactivity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication," he told senators.

In terms that stood in stark contrast to more guarded warnings in the past about the threats in cyberspace, Blair opened his briefing with a bleak assessment of the "far-reaching impact of the cyberthreat."

"The national security of the United States, our economic prosperity, and the daily functioning of our government are dependent on a dynamic public and private information infrastructure, which includes telecommunications, computer networks and systems, and the information residing within." This critical infrastructure," Blair said, "is severely threatened."

Blair warned of "a dangerous combination of known and unknown vulnerabilities, strong and rapidly expanding adversary capabilities, and a lack of comprehensive threat awareness." He also alluded to penetration of Google's Gmail service by Chinese-based hackers, a cybercrime that also apparently targeted several dozen additional U.S. companies, saying that the incident was "stark reminder of the importance of these cyberassets and a wake-up call to those who have not taken this problem seriously."

The testimony reflects the reality that cyberspace encompasses several once disparate areas of national security. For instance, criminals and terrorists can bankroll their operations by stealing money from banks or running protection rackets against public utilities. Blair said that intelligence community analysts concluded that current trends could "potentially increase vulnerabilities and the consequences of security failures." Blair pointed to two trends, expected to increase in the coming years, which contributed to the growing national vulnerability. The first is the consolidation of computer networks, meaning that voice, data, and video travel along the same electronic roadways. The second trend is the concentration of data that each person has in cyberspace. "The increased interconnection of information systems and data inherent in these trends pose potential threats to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of critical infrastructures and of secure credentialing and identification technologies," Blair said. 

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