A recent (failed) push
to enact cybersecurity legislation has resulted in some interesting maneuvering in Washington, DC. Rep. Mike Rogers, who introduced CISPA, is trying to revive his lousy legislation by telling scary stories
that are short on detail, but long on FUD. Other interested parties are hoping to bypass the legislative process altogether and get an executive order
pushed through. The "process" has become so chaotic that politicians are finding themselves hurriedly agreeing to stuff
that contradicts the other stuff
Of all the people that believe Something Must Be Done, cybersecurity-wise, one of the pithiest has been Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who issued a memorable pull-quote on October 11th in a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, warning that the United States was facing the possibility of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor
A dire situation indeed, if true. Panetta is worried about critical infrastructure being sabotaged by cyberterrorists and is totally not just pushing his own agenda.* According to defense officials, "Mr. Panetta's words were not hyperbole."
(*Panetta is totally pushing his own agenda... those same defense officials "acknowledged that Mr. Panetta was also pushing for legislation on Capitol Hill
Yes. Panetta is non-hyperbolically pushing his own agenda. The problem is that, while the CISPA/executive order debacle is fairly recent, Panetta's "cyber-Pearl Harbor" has the ring of a worn-out catchphrase, severely limiting the impact of those somewhat stirring words.
Let's go back to June 2011, when Panetta was holding forth during his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of Defense
The next great battle America faces is likely to involve cyberwarfare, Leon Panetta, the Central Intelligence Agency director, warned senators Thursday, predicting that "the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples" America’s electrical grid and its security and financial systems.
Tough words from an old warrior (and now former CIA Director). Perhaps the warrior might be a bit too old
, as he also offered this quote-worthy bit of scaremongering back in February 2011
"The potential for the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack," he testified on Capitol Hill Thursday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The more things change, the more they are the same old shit. Unchanged: using "Pearl Harbor" as shorthand for "unforeseeable bad thing," while simultaneously plucking at patriotic heartstrings by conjuring up the last war the US didn't play to a tie. Savvy. But repetitive.
The most current edition of "cyber-Pearl Harbor" finds Panetta concentrating mostly on infrastructure, thus equating a military surprise attack with some
Iranian hacker flipping the "OFF" switch on the power grid.
“An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches,” Mr. Panetta said. “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
Past editions of "Clue: Panetta Edition" haven't been so concentrated on the still-mythic "Cyberterrorists in the Water Main with the Malicious Code." In February 2011, it was "Chinese 'Entities' in the Internet with the Hacking," and a bit of "Anonymous in the EVERYTHING
with the LOIC
." There was some talk of putting together a joint task force composed of NSA and DHS members. Additional hyperbole was added by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
"This threat is increasing in scope and scale, and its impact is difficult to overstate."
Sure is. Especially when you lead in with "cyber-Pearl Harbor." Setting the "overstatement" bar this high does
kind of throw off the curve.
June 2011 didn't change much for Panetta's ongoing game of cyber-Clue. Most of the "grilling" during his confirmation hearing revolved around ongoing actual
wars, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Concern was also expressed about "indiscriminate Pentagon budget cuts."
Back to last week, and it's all about the infrastructure. It's as if no one had bothered debunking a recent DHS report
about Russian hackers burning out a water pump at an Illinois water facility. Not that it matters, as the DHS was proud
to have been involved in a successful FUD operation. Any publicity is good
publicity, right? Boring old truth and measured phrases rarely inspire the sort of support needed to shove through questionable legislation and keep the money flowing to the cottage industries that have sprung up like kudzu around the leaky water main that is Washington, DC.
This repeated catchphrase of Panetta's has stuck with him, even as he's shifted loyalties. Back in February 2011, there was talk of DHS/NSA cooperation. Fast-forward to the latest iteration of "cyber-Pearl Harbor" and Panetta's batting for his new
home team: the Defense Department, pulling the control (and money) back into the hands of the NSA, the greater of two evils.
Repeat after Panetta:
If you're against
cybersecurity legislation, you're for
bombing Americans on early December mornings. Can you live with that?