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Jed Babbin: In hacking, a good defense is not enough

technology crime

Chinese computer hackers attacked the Department of Energy's computer networks in late January, penetrating 14 servers and 20 workstations, according to several news reports. They were apparently seeking access to classified information as well as testing the means of penetrating other DOE networks. This incident is only one among thousands of computer attacks mounted by the Chinese government every year.

In 2007, Russian experts hacked into the Estonian government's computer networks, bringing that government to a standstill. "Hacking" is no longer an adequate word for what China and other governments -- including ours -- do. The terms "cyber-espionage" and "cyberwar" have been coined to describe these weapons of modern conflict.

America, too, engages in cyber-espionage and occasionally in cyberwarfare. As White House leaks indicated last year, the "Stuxnet" computer virus, which took control of and damaged many Iranian nuclear enrichment centrifuges, was an American effort.

American policy on cyber-espionage and cyberwar has been ad hoc in large part because of the lack of an integrated cyberpolicy within government. Defense and intelligence agencies, short of operational funding, have not combined their efforts and funding, resulting in duplicated costs and effort. The financial asymmetry between offensive and defensive operations is a central problem: The former is relatively inexpensive, but the latter requires enormous manpower and funding. We need a clearer policy -- and greater cooperation within government -- to integrate both defensive and offensive efforts.

No nation has developed and employed cyber-espionage and cyberwar more than China. Eleven years ago, two Chinese active duty army colonels explained how cyber-espionage and cyberwar are the principal tools of "Unrestricted Warfare," the title of their book on those subjects. Since then, Chinese government cyber-espionage has reportedly penetrated some of the classified aspects of the F-35 fighter program. It has also penetrated the Army's Pentagon email system and the government and commercial satellites that we -- and our military -- rely on for everything from GPS navigation to communication and intelligence gathering. Chinese cyber-espionage and cyberwar attacks on government systems -- and those of companies working for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies -- occur hundreds of times every day.

The recent Chinese penetration of the Department of Energy's computer network is a very serious matter, almost equal to its penetration of the F-35 program and our satellite controls. DOE has cognizance of nuclear weapons development and maintenance, but according to my sources, the DOE nuclear subnet was not targeted this time.

Chinese attacks on satellites could disrupt their functions or even sabotage them. If, for example, a commercial GPS satellite were sabotaged, its guidance data could be altered so that commercial airliners would be led off course. Military and intelligence satellite hacking could disable much of our national security structure.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said last year that our $110 billion-a-year cyber-economy has never been more vulnerable to attack. We are spending billions every year to protect the computer networks in the intelligence agencies, Defense and other government networks. Many private companies are spending heavily, cooperating with those agencies to help protect the computer assets they rely on and share.

What is needed most is the offensive doctrine that is just now being established. Since the Iraq campaign began in 2003, the Pentagon has developed sophisticated weapons that track incoming mortar fire and instantly return fire at the enemy's launchers. Our cyberwarriors can and should create the same sort of instant retaliatory systems that combine counteroffensive capabilities with those that defend our government computer networks. The policies that enable them to do so should be drafted and implemented with all possible speed.

Jed Babbin was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."