Navy secretary gets a cyber jolt

Anyone who was around for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will remember the statement then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card whispered into President George W. Bush’s ear as the commander in chief read a story to children in a Florida elementary school: “Mr. President, American is under attack.”

The hijackings of the four airliners made it pretty clear something bad was going on. The question is how the country would deal with it.

In January the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment from the intelligence community discussed the ongoing cyber attacks on the U.S. The very first global threat listed is in fact the cyber threat. It cites China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. In this respect, the report reads less as news than like an additional tom-tom in the cyber threat drumbeats. The report focuses as much on the cyber-hosted propaganda campaign as on the campaign to steal military and commercial intellectual property.

A few months earlier, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats had publicly warned about Russian cyber attacks, just before President Donald Trump left for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just days before that, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had indicted a dozen Russian agents for cyber espionage.

Now comes news of an unreleased report, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, delivered to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. It says the Navy and its industry and academic research partners are under siege, primarily by Chinese hackers. It describes “a flood of breaches of significant data” and of a continuing “hemorrhage” of critical data. According the the Journal summary, the Navy response has been flat-footed, characterized by limited understanding of what is going on.

Now that the report was strategically leaked to a major newspaper, I expect we’ll all be able to read it shortly. If China managed to obtain plans for a new supersonic, submarine-fired missile, what harm can there be in letting Joe Blow reading about the fact of that loss?

China’s motive seems clear. I doubt it plans to invade the United States. It just wants to have its own hegemony over Asia and perhaps resources-rich Africa. Wars are economic and the US Navy’s considerable reach impedes those plans. The U.S. has 11 carriers with a couple more under construction. China has two. But maybe its leaders figure, why spend our way to parity when we can simply neutralize hardware assets of the United States through cyber warfare?

The Trump administration seeks $9.6 billion for Defense Department cyber activities next year. We don’t know the numbers, but an area of the Energy Department it’s looking to plus-up is cyber and energy security. Don’t forget, Energy is a major partner to DoD in maintaining and security nuclear weapons. The Department Homeland Security would get $1 billion for cybersecurity, largely devoted to helping federal agencies defend their networks.

Add to all of this annual spending the establishment of a special DoD cyber command and a constellation of cyber specialists and agencies within the armed service, and the question becomes, what is the government doing with this money and manpower?

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