Return to

Feb. 5, 2015
Notes from the Pentagon

Ashton Carter outlines acts of cyber war
Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that an act of cyberwarfare is defined as a cyberattack on critical infrastructure, the economy or U.S. military operations.

However, Mr. Carter said he did not think the North Korean cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment reached the level of an act of war.

“I believe that what is termed an act of war should follow the same practice as in other domains, because it is the seriousness, not the means, of an attack that matters most,” he said in written answers to questions posed by the committee and released Wednesday. “Whether a particular attack is considered an ‘act of war,’ in or out of cyberspace, requires a determination on a case-by-case and fact-specific basis.”

Malicious cyberattacks that cause death, injury or significant destruction could fall into the category of acts of war and would require a response, Mr. Carter said.

He noted that a cyberattack does not need to be classified as an act of war to trigger a response.

On the North Korean hack, Mr. Carter said the damage involved data deletion, destruction of some of the Sony networks and the leaking of personal data.

“While serious and deserving of a response, this does not seem to me to rise to the level of an act of war,” said Mr. Carter, President Obama’s nominee to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

On China’s aggressive theft of intellectual property, Mr. Carter said: “The theft of intellectual property through cyber means is a clear threat to the economic prosperity from which the nation derives its national security.”

Chinese cybertheft harms U.S. economic competition and military technology advantages. “Any nation-state that engages in the theft of our intellectual property through cyber means jeopardizes both our national security and economic prosperity,” Mr. Carter said.

Asked what steps should be taken to deter Chinese cyberspying, Mr. Carter said all instruments of U.S. power should be used to deter the attacks.

The Pentagon can be directed to conduct cyberattacks to defend the nation and military networks, he added, and noted that a Cyber Mission Force is being set up over the past three years.

“This force is intended to defend DoD networks, defend the nation from cyberattack and provide full-spectrum cyberspace options for the combatant commands,” Mr. Carter said, noting that “several challenges” need to be addressed, including creating an effective command and control systems and integrating National Guard cyberteams.

A recent terrorist attack by the Islamic State on a Saudi border post with Iraq highlights the danger that the oil-rich kingdom could become a target of attacks, according to a State Department report.

“The attack follows already growing concerns that the risk of terrorism in Saudi Arabia may be increasing,” states the report by the research unit of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a State Department security partnership with U.S. companies. “Al Qaeda’s persistent interest in attacking the kingdom, paired with a string of recent incidents and growing instability in the region, raises the possibility that the relative quiet of recent years could give way to an elevated terrorism threat.”

The Islamic State attack took place Jan. 5 at the Suwief border post 25 miles from the town of Arar in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The militants carried out a rifle assault and suicide bomb attack that killed two Saudi border guards and their commanding officer, a general.

Saudi authorities later arrested three Saudis and four Syrians who were linked to the attack.

The report says that Saudi counterterrorism capabilities have improved in the past 10 years, “the persistent intent and evolving capabilities of terrorist groups highlights a concern for those operating in-country.”

U.S. businesses have expressed worries about growing terrorism threats but have not taken measures to increase security, the Jan. 29 report by the OSAC Research and Information Support Center states.

The Islamic State threat to the kingdom is made worse by the continuing threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which conducted numerous internal attacks in the 2000s targeting Saudi government and economic interests, as well as Western interests, in Saudi Arabia.

There were six terrorist attacks from 2005 to 2011, down from 30 in 2004 after a Riyadh crackdown.

“Today, AQAP and ISIL remain interested in targeting Saudi Arabia, highlighted by recent statements and activities,” says the report, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

The al Qaeda group attacked a Saudi guard post on the border with Yemen last year, killing four Saudi guards and five militants.

In November, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a speech calling for terrorists to attack Saudi Arabia.

The report notes a string of incidents over the past several months that indicate terrorists are stepping up or planning attacks. They include an incident in October in which three employees of a U.S. defense firm were fired upon, killing one and wounding another, and an Islamic State assault in November against a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Also in November, a Danish national was injured in a shooting claimed by the Islamic State near the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and the stabbing of a Canadian in Dhahran.

The report warns that some 1,000 foreign fighters returned to Saudi Arabia after the fall of the Taliban in 2003, and many took part in terrorist support networks in the kingdom.

“Saudi nationals have had a high foreign-fighter presence,” the report says, noting that 1,200 to 2,500 Saudis have taken part in the Syrian conflict on the side of rebels. The Saudi contingent of foreign fighters in Syria is one of the highest percentages of any single country.

The report says that about 25 percent of those Syrian fighters have returned home.

The recent Paris attack by jihadis linked to Syria is a sign that the threat “should be taken seriously,” the report says.

Saudi Arabia is taking part in coalition military operations against the Islamic State and thus could become an increasing target of the group’s attacks.

The Saudis are setting up a 600-mile-long wall on the Iraqi border composed of a ditch and triple-layered steel fencing, with some 40 watchtowers and electronic surveillance radar. A similar wall was set up on the southern border with Yemen in 2013.

“Troops have reportedly been issued orders to shoot on sight anyone seen breaching the border,” the report says.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the new director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, told a House hearing this week that China’s high-technology weapons pose a “significant threat” to U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

“They have sophisticated air and missile and space defense capabilities,” Gen. Stewart told a House Committee on Armed Services hearing on national security threats.

“I think that they are designing their forces to challenge military presence of the United States in the region,” he added. “They have fairly sophisticated missile systems that can counter a number of our platforms. I think both China training and some of their weapons capability is a significant threat to our forces.”

The three-star general said he did not believe the United States is losing its technological edge to China.

“But I do believe China has a concerted effort to, as much as possible, gather intellectual property to close the gap between our technological edge and their capability,” he said. “I do not believe at this point that we are losing our technological edge, but it is at risk, based on some of their cyberactivities.”

Last week, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the same House committee that China’s new precision weapons and other advanced arms capability are undermining U.S. military superiority. “We’re at risk, and the situation is getting worse,” he said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

  • Return to