Russia, China continue to pose cyber threat to U.S. networks

James Clapper

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers that non-state actors such as the Islamic State group have "unprecedented online proficiency."

Top intelligence officials remain wary of Russia's and China's growing threat to U.S. networks, according to testimony during a Feb. 9 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

"Russia and China continue to have the most sophisticated cyber programs," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the committee. The intelligence chief, who has more than five decades of experience, warned lawmakers that non-state actors such as the Islamic State group also have "unprecedented online proficiency," and their ability to use encryption to evade law enforcement surveillance hurts efforts by the U.S. intelligence community to track their cyber activities.

The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, called the Islamic State "the most significant terrorist threat to the United States and our allies." He added that non-state actors' use of online tools to recruit new followers "remains a significant challenge."

Senators, meanwhile, voiced their own concerns. "I am still concerned about critical infrastructure," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told the officials. And Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the administration does not have a policy in place that addresses the ability to deter or respond to cyberwarfare.

"The fact is, we don't have a policy, and I don't know how you react to threats or actual penetration into some of our most sensitive information," he said.

It was not the first time McCain has criticized the Obama administration's cyber deterrence plan. During a Jan. 12 hearing, he said the current policy "goes to great pains to minimize the role of offensive cyber capabilities and does little to clarify the policy ambiguities that undermine the credibility of deterrence."

At the Feb. 9 hearing, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) asked the witnesses what the intelligence agencies' role is in preventing a "hemorrhaging of American technology." Clapper responded that "our obligation is for people to know about it and, when we can, to suggest ways to stop it."

Stewart added, "It would be extremely helpful to have clear definitions of what constitutes...cyber defense and act of war."

"I think we have a pretty robust capability to understand the adversaries," he added. "Whether or not we are ready to use that, that is the essence of deterrence.... I am not sure we are there yet, and that goes beyond our ability to understand [and] counter the military capability."

In his written testimony, Clapper highlighted some of the technological challenges that he predicts will continue to persist.

"Devices, designed and fielded with minimal security requirements and testing, and an ever-increasing complexity of networks could lead to widespread vulnerabilities in civilian infrastructures and U.S. government systems," he wrote. "These developments will pose challenges to our cyber defenses and operational tradecraft but also create new opportunities for our own intelligence collectors."

Clapper cited the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality technology as vulnerable to manipulation.

"Broader adoption of IoT devices and AI -- in settings such as public utilities and health care --will only exacerbate these potential effects," he said. "Russian cyber actors, who post disinformation on commercial websites, might seek to alter online media as a means to influence public discourse and create confusion."

"Americans must know that intelligence is not like in the movies," McCain said. "Although our intelligence professionals are the best in the world, there will not always be a satellite in position or a drone overhead, and not every terrorist phone call will be intercepted."

He added that it is the "responsibility of policymakers, from the White House to the Pentagon to here on Capitol Hill, to invest in cutting-edge capabilities" to battle the evolving threat from foreign countries.

"If we fail to make these commitments," McCain said, "we will continue to be surprised by events at an ever-increasing cost to our national security.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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