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How Powerful Are the Pentagon's Hackers?

The National Research Council stepped into the shadowy world of cyberwarfare this week, issuing a call for open discussion of the Pentagon's efforts to build computer viruses or other novel weapons to infect or destroy an adversary's computers. According to the NRC panel, the "cyberattack capabilities" of the United States are probably more powerful than "the most sophisticated cyberattacks perpetrated by cybercriminals."

This is a good thing, says Admiral William Owens, a former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who co-chaired the NRC panel. According to Owens, attacking foreign computers is "a very important capability." But he also warned of dangers stemming from widespread secrecy and ignorance surrounding the nation's cyberarsenal. Most civilian policymakers and senior military leaders, he says, don't fully understand how attacks on computers are carried out and probably don't understand the risks involved. In the early stages of a conflict, he says, "it may be considered just a little too easy" to sabotage an adversary's power grid or telecommunications with software, instead of with explosives. But the risks, in fact, may be similar: "Cyberattacks are not of lesser significance simply because they target computers."

He compared the current situation to the relative silence surrounding nuclear strategy in the 1950s. Herman Kahn set off a wider public discussion with his book On Thermonuclear War in 1960, which forced policymakers and military leaders to think more clearly about the consequences of using nuclear weapons. The country should be having a similar discussion, he says, about cyberwarfare.

The report recommends that foundations and the U.S. government support academic research on cyberconflict, just as they have on nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. It also recommends that Congress require a periodic accounting of cyberattacks that the nation's military and intelligence services have carried out. The Pentagon may be surreptitiously trying to enter computers in Iran and sabotage that country's uranium enrichment program.