WASHINGTON (AP) — The Defense Department is establishing a series of cyber teams charged with carrying out offensive operations to combat the threat of an electronic assault on the United States that could cause major damage and disruption to the country’s vital infrastructure, a senior military official said Tuesday.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the top officer at U.S. Cyber Command, warned during testimony that the potential for an attack against the nation’s electric grid and other essential systems is real and more aggressive steps need to be taken by the federal government and the private sector in order to improve digital defenses.
Alexander told the Senate Armed Services Committee that foreign leaders are deterred from launching cyberattacks on the United States because they know such a strike could be traced to its source and would generate a robust response.
But the country is not preventing what Alexander called “low-level harassment of private and public websites, property and information by other states.” He did not mention any specific countries, even though the Obama administration is escalating its criticism of cyber thefts by China that have become intolerable to the international community.
Offensive cyber weapons are growing and evolving, Alexander said, and it is only a matter of time before tools developed by other nations wind up in the hands of extremist groups or even individuals who could do significant harm.
Alexander said 13 cyber teams are being formed for the mission of guarding the nation in cyberspace. He described them as “defend-the-nation” teams but stressed their role would be offensive. In comments to reporters after the hearing, Alexander likened the teams’ duties to knocking an incoming missile out of the sky before it hits a target. He also said the teams would work outside the United States, but he did not say where.