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Cyber-security: Hagel, at NSA headquarters, promises more transparency

In a carefully worded speech on cyber-security described as a study in 'strategic ambiguity,' Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also called for the development of offensive cyber-capabilities and investment in the Pentagon's Cyber Command.

Brendan Smialowski/Reuters
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks during a retirement ceremony at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland on Friday.

In his first major speech on cyber-security, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel promised more transparency by the National Security Agency, calling for a “more open dialogue” about NSA activities and citing a need to honor “our nation’s tradition of privacy rights.”

Speaking in what was billed as the “first-ever live broadcast” from the NSA’s headquarters at Ft. Meade, Md., Secretary Hagel also called for more investment at the Pentagon’s new Cyber Command and the development of “full-spectrum” offensive cyber-capabilities.

At the same time he also appeared eager to assuage concerns that the US is, or would be, a military cyber-aggressor.

His carefully calibrated comments – hailing the value of openness as well as new cyber-military capabilities – were delivered at a send-off event for Gen. Keith Alexander, the retiring NSA director and chief of Cyber Command, whose tumultuous tenure as head of both agencies saw a buildup in offensive as well as surveillance capabilities.

James Lewis, a cyber-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the speech a study in "strategic ambiguity."

General Alexander’s successor, US Navy Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, takes over an NSA heavily buffeted over the past year by a global furor over the agency’s ubiquitous surveillance operations detailed in top-secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to news media. Like Alexander, Vice Admiral Rogers will also take the helm at the Cyber Command.

Hagel’s comments seemed to register the intense disapproval of US surveillance and cyber-sabotage activities by even some of America’s closest allies.

“The United States does not seek to ‘militarize’ cyberspace,” Hagel said in his prepared remarks. “Instead, our government is promoting the very qualities of the Internet – integrity, reliability, and openness – that have made it a catalyst for freedom and prosperity in the United States, and around the world.”

At the same time, however, he emphasized a growing cyber-threat and the need to counter it with increased personnel and cyber-weapons development.

“During the course of my remarks today, DoD systems will have been scanned by adversaries around 50,000 times,” he noted. “Our nation confronts the proliferation of destructive malware and a new reality of steady, ongoing, and aggressive efforts to probe, access, or disrupt public and private networks, and the industrial control systems that manage our water, energy, and food supplies.”

Hagel painted a nuanced view that the US would not be the first to lash out when it came to digital military operations, but with an implicit warning.

“DoD will maintain an approach of restraint to any cyber-operations outside of US government networks,” he said. “We are urging other nations to do the same. We will continue to take steps to be open and transparent about our cyber-capabilities, doctrine, and forces – with the American people, our allies and partners, and even competitors.”

Non-Snowden leaks in The New York Times in 2012 detailed how a cyber-weapon called Stuxnet, developed by the US and Israel – and many believe with NSA involvement – hammered Iranian nuclear fuel refining facilities at Natanz.

More recent media reports based on the Snowden-leaked documents revealed the collection of telephone metadata of US citizens, listening in on other nation’s leaders’ phone calls, and intrusions into social media. Under congressional pressure, President Obama announced Thursday he would push to unwind the telephone metadata collection program as an NSA function.

While civil libertarians have hailed the revelations by Mr. Snowden, national security experts say they undermined US diplomatic positions. As recently as a year ago, for instance, the US appeared to be making headway reining in Chinese cyber-espionage targeting US corporations. That effort is now at a diplomatic slow walk.

Against that backdrop, Hagel noted that while oceans have historically protected the US from aggressor nations, the interconnectedness of cyber-space had fundamentally changed the equation.

“We will sustain our investments in intelligence – because it is one of our most important national assets; because it keeps our troops a step ahead on the battlefield; and because America depends on it,” he said. “We also are protecting critical investments in our military’s cyber-capabilities, which have been anchored by General Alexander’s vision for CYBERCOM.”

By 2016, he said, US Cyber Command, which is subordinate to US Strategic Command, would number 6,000 “professionals” – sometimes popularly referred to as “cyber-warriors.” Alexander’s work to build the US cyber-force “will remain one of DoD’s top priorities,” he said.

“Our military’s first responsibility is to prevent and de-escalate conflict – and that is DoD’s overriding purpose in cyber-space as well,” he said. “General Alexander has helped leaders across DoD recognize that cyber-space will be a part of all future conflicts – and if we don’t adapt to that reality, our national security will be at grave risk.”

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