* Panetta says banks, power grids are among the targets
* Cyber security expert says warnings are not hyperbole
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Oct 19 Cyberspace is the battlefield
of the future, with attackers already going after banks and
other financial institutions and developing the ability to
strike U.S. power grids and government systems, Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday.
"We confront a whole new threat of warfare in (cyberspace).
... This is an area we've got to pay close attention to. This is
the battlefront of the future," he told a business group in
Norfolk, Virginia, a city at the center of one of the largest
concentrations of military power in the United States.
Panetta's remarks came a week after he delivered a major
policy speech on cyber security to a New York business group,
saying the U.S. military could act pre-emptively if it detects
an imminent threat of cyber attack.
U.S. banks and financial institutions have been under
sustained attack in recent weeks by suspected Iranian hackers
thought to be responding to economic sanctions aimed at forcing
Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program.
A group calling itself the Cyber Fighters of Izz ad-din Al
Qassam has claimed credit for the disruptions, calling them a
protest against an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube that has
provoked violent protests across the Muslim world.
"As I speak, there are attacks going on in this country,
cyber attacks, on financial institutions, on banks," Panetta
told the business group on Friday, adding that Washington faces
hundreds of thousands of attacks per day. He did not specify the
country from which the attacks were originating.
"Now they are developing the capability to be able to go
after our grid, our power grid, our financial systems, our
government systems, and virtually paralyze this country," he
William Robertson, an assistant professor at Northeastern
University in Boston who testified on cyber security legislation
in Congress earlier this year, said in an interview the
government is "quite understandably worried" about the threat.
"I don't think it's hyperbole," he added. "These kinds of
attacks that he's talking about have actually been going on for
quite some time. And they've been increasing in intensity
Panetta said last week the United States has made
significant investments in cyber forensics to deal with the
problem of identifying the source of a cyber attack. He warned
potential attackers that the United States has "the capacity to
locate them and hold them accountable."
Robertson said identifying the source of a cyber attack
"Identity and attribution on the Internet are not very
robust. If you look at kind of the underlying protocols that
kind of power the Internet ... there's no real strong mechanism
for identifying where something is coming from," he said.
Panetta also said that more pressure on Congress is needed
to push it to act to avoid a round of automatic budget cuts due
to go into effect in January.
The cuts would take another $500 billion from defense
spending over the next decade, following a $487 billion cut in
projected defense spending approved last year.
Panetta called the automatic cuts a "goofy mechanism" put
into place by Congress to force lawmakers "to do what they are
supposed to do" and deal with the U.S. budget deficits.
"So they put a gun to their heads and said if we don't do
what's right we'll blow our heads off," Panetta said. "And they
didn't do what is right and now the damn gun is cocked to go off