WASHINGTON: Cyber Pearl Harbor. Sends chills down your spine, doesn’t it? With the enormous national theft undertaken by China from American companies and universities over the last five years it does seem a worrying prospect. And the idea of a cyber Pearl Harbor has become an ingrained tenet of much of the public debate about cyber warfare and hacking, especially in light of persistent and massive cyber espionage by China.
The verdict obviously is still out on this one, but one experienced observer of Russia and China thinks it just isn’t likely.
“I don’t think there is going to be a Pearl Harbor,” said David Smith, retired ambassador and director of the respected Potomac Institute’s Cyber Center. The Chinese, he said today at a Potomac event focused on Chinese cyberwarfare, “do not want to face the Japanese without some kind of American intervention.”
While he certainly acknowledged that China launches many cyber attacks on US networks, Smith downplayed the threat from the People’s Republic. “You read these horror stories: they are going to bring down the stock exchange. They aren’t going to do any such thing.”
While China may be more interested in stealing our intellectual property than destroying our economy directly, it still poses a considerable threat to U.S. interests, argued William Hagestad, author of the book, 21st Century Chinese Cyberwarfare. He noted that China has very carefully designed simple cyber attack tools “to allow any soldier to launch” a range of cyber attacks. He detailed a range of writing by Chinese military authors noting the centrality of information war in Chinese doctrinal writings. His conclusion: China is engaged in “cyber warfare that is serious and will become much worse.”
James Mulvenon, vice president of Defense Group Inc.’s intelligence division, similarly noted the Chinese emphasis on what some experts translate as “informationization,” the use of a wide array of methods by the military and the broader Chinese population to gather intelligence, strike at U.S. interests, prepare the battlefield, and generally make life rotten for U.S. entities that possess things the Chinese value or fear. Mulvenon noted that a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee chairs the body that oversees informationization.
During a recent meeting about cyber between Chinese and U.S. authorities, Mulvenon said he complimented the Chinese attendees on complimented Chinese for “doing something thus far thought impossible. You have mobilized an all-of-government response to what you are doing.” However, he also said that State Department demarches, the tool of choice for American responses to Chinese cyber espionage and commercial theft, “have not exactly brought them quivering to their knees.”
What has the United States government done to ensure it is properly organized to combat this threat? Not enough, according to Mulvenon and Hagestad. “Every policy meeting I’ve gone to is still dominated by discussions about who’s in charge,” Mulvenon said. “I have not seen any demonstrable progress in three years.”
When I asked Hagestad whether he thought the U.S. military and the government are properly organized to handle the threat of cyber attacks, he said meaningful rules of cyber war engagement and clear lines of authority — Areas of Responsibility in military speak — do not exist.