Before becoming Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta was an eight-term member of the House of Representatives, Clinton's Chief of Staff for 3 years, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Nobody can survive in Washington for more than 45 years without superb political, instincts, and he has them. In this particularly contentious election year, his party is relying on his partisan political skills and those of everybody like him, and so it's no surprise that this week Panetta has been more visible and voluble than ever.
On Thursday, at a public event in New York, Panetta startled many people with a dire warning that the United States is dangerously exposed to cyberattack from a variety of enemies who could, quite easily, cripple our utilities, transportation, banking and government. Such an assault could destroy our water and food supplies and throw the whole nation into chaos, with an unimaginable toll, and all without firing a shot.
One motivation for Panetta's speech was to castigate an obstructionist Congress---and thus the Republicans---for preventing action to defend against this kind of catastrophe. In a race as close as this, almost anything can tip the balance. But just because the speech has a large political component does not mean that the warning is merely an alarmist ploy. It is not election year hyperbole, and it is all too real.
In the days when real or imagined slights, territorial ambitions and physical attacks were the reasons for war, there was plenty of warning time to establish production lines, draft troops and train them, assemble a defense, and fight back. As technology shortened available reaction time, technology also provided deterrence: as long as you could counterattack in a devastating way, potential adversaries were disinclined to launch an assault. The irony was that massive destruction could be averted by the very threat of massive destruction. Still today, no sovereign nation would be foolish enough to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and even an international nut case like North Korea, which already possesses nuclear weapons, can use them only at the risk of being annihilated.
But great technological developments usually, dangerously, destabilize the defense landscape. During the Civil War, much of the battlefield carnage resulted from the inadequacy of outclassed Napoleonic tactics against formidable modern weapons. Today, the world is dependent on computers, and these machines are speaking to each other all the time, exposing them to all manner of debilitating disease.
This nation is at risk not just from the asocial hacker with too much time on his hands. Adversaries have mounted many serious assaults on both commercial and government computers. Both China and Iran operate entire organizations that are skilled at penetrating the most difficult cyber targets, and they are becoming increasingly brazen---and successful.
Meanwhile, we have been complacent and uncoordinated, unwilling to take the steps necessary to protect the nation. We fear sharing information with our government, but in the process we are sharing it with our enemies. We are engaged in a battle that will require the suspension of petty, adolescent envy and enmity if we are to survive.
Jacobs latest book is "Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training," released by St. Martin's Press.