Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) are engaging in a cooperative investigation to determine who exactly from China was trolling through Google’s proprietary networks, including e-mail exchanges of Chinese dissidents. They are also joining together to develop new defenses against malicious intrusion and attacks on America’s cyberinfrastructure.
Though America’s cybervulnerability has long been a concern of intelligence agencies, the Google episode has catapulted it to a national security priority.
No one knows more about China’s cyberwar capacities than Mike McConnell, who was director of National Intelligence, the authority over all US intelligence agencies, from February 2007 to January 2009, and director of the NSA from 1992 to 1996. After attacks last spring on the Pentagon and the New York Stock Exchange, I sat down with him to discuss China, the chief suspect then also, and to get the lay of the cyberwar battlefield.
Here is an excerpt of what he had to say.
Nathan Gardels: Defense analysts say that 90 percent of the probes and scans of American defense systems as well as commercial computer networks come from China. Is China the chief culprit?
Mike McConnell: I don’t know if it is 90 percent. Probably the best in the world in the cyberrealm are the United States, the Russians, the British, the Israelis, and the French. The next tier is the Chinese, but they are determined to be the best.
We are an open society. A virtual sieve for cyberpenetration. Most information they can readily download from the Web. It is very easy to scan a network in seconds to determine which two or three of the thousands of computers are not protected with blocking technology. One infects the unprotected computers on the inside, which in turn infects the remaining computers inside the network.
The Chinese are exploiting our systems for information advantage – looking for the characteristics of a weapons system by a defense contractor or academic research on plasma physics, for example – not in order to destroy data and do damage. But, for now, I believe they are deterred from destroying data both by the need to export to the US and by the need to keep stable currency and stable global markets.
But what happens if we have a war? A capability for information exploitation could quickly be used for information attack to destroy systems on which the US depends. Every nation with advanced technology is exploring options to establish policy and rules for how to use this new capability to wage war.
Gardels: So everyone is probing everyone else?
McConnell: Everyone. All the time. US probings are limited to foreigners. We cannot probe in American systems. We would need a warrant for that, and the purpose would have to be foreign intelligence value, approved by a court. Foreign attackers into the US do not have such restrictions.
The point is, we have an intelligence community, managed by the director of National Intelligence, whose purpose is to understand the globe by obtaining foreign information that will give us an advantage and to assist our understanding of those who might in some way threaten our security.
Terrorist groups today are ranked near the bottom of cyberwar capability. Criminal organizations are more sophisticated. There is a hierarchy. You go from nation-states, who can destroy things, to criminals, who can steal things, to aggravating but sophisticated hackers.
At some point, however, the terrorists will get a couple of graduates from one of the best universities with skills in cybercapabilities. It is a mistake to think these terrorists are simply poor peasants or angry preachers. The terror attacks on London (in 2007) were planned and executed by professionally trained medical doctors.
Sooner or later, terror groups will achieve cybersophistication. It’s like nuclear proliferation, only far easier. Once you have the knowledge, you don’t have to spend years enriching uranium and testing long-range missiles. It wouldn’t take long to obtain a sophisticated attack capability. Unlike nation-states that have an interest in a stable globe with stable markets, the terrorists will not be deterred from damaging our data to achieve their goals.
For once in our history, the US should take proactive measures ahead of a disaster to plan for this instead of react after the fact. I understand the art of the possible in cyberwarfare capabilities. I know what our capabilities are today.
Others will be able to do the same thing in time, so let’s do what is necessary to defend ourselves now before we have a catastrophic event.
Gardels: When we are talking about the Chinese, whom are we talking about? The government? The People’s Liberation Army?
McConnell: Let me put it this way. In the United States, we made a decision that code breaking was essential to our security; therefore, the president created the National Security Agency in 1952.
In World War II, we had code-breaking units in the Army, Navy, and the State Department that contributed significantly to winning the war in Europe and in the Pacific. In order to manage code breaking going into the cold war, the president created the NSA, which reports to the secretary of Defense, a cabinet position, because the function was considered so important. The secretary of Defense remains today the cabinet official responsible for NSA’s mission of signals intelligence.
So NSA manages it for the nation. China has a similar structure and authority associated with it. So, their intelligence collection is coordinated, but just as in the US, there are competing bureaucracies carrying out the cyberexploitation mission.
In China today, there are thousands of people in a sustained effort to collect intelligence, many of them on an entrepreneurial basis, as it were, within a competing bureaucratic structure.
China understands that a strategic vulnerability of the United States is its soft cyberunderbelly. I believe they seek to “own” that space. My view is that the
Chinese received a big shock when watching the action of Desert Storm (during the first Iraq war). They saw the power of the US linking computer technology with weaponry to attain precision. We had dropped 1,000 bombs in World War II to destroy target effectively. In Vietnam, it took hundreds of bombs. Today it takes one.
One target. One bomb. We dominated the warfare sphere. We owned the ability to locate and see targets through navigation and satellite imagery others did not have. We had air superiority. We could take a valuable target out with one bomb at the time of our choosing.
I believe the Chinese concluded from the Desert Storm experience that their counterapproach had to be to challenge America’s control of the battle space by building capabilities to knock out our satellites and invading our cybernetworks. In the name of the defense of China in this new world, the Chinese feel they have to remove that advantage of the US in the event of a war.
So the Chinese developed capacity to shoot down satellites. They have developed over-the-horizon radar capabilities. They have missiles that can be retargeted in flight. In short, they are seeking ways to keep us at bay in the event of a conflict, to not let us approach China. In time, as their power, influence, and wealth grow, China likely will develop “power projection” weapons systems.
They see the Middle Kingdom as the center of the world. They will have gone from what they describe as “the century of shame” to “our century” going forward. And they want to protect that from the US or anybody else.
The Chinese want to dominate this information space. So they want to develop the capability of attacking our “information advantage” while denying us this capability.
Nathan Gardels is the editor in chief of New Perspectives Quarterly and the Global Viewpoint Network of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media. His most recent book, with Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, is “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.”
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