Recent cyber attacks against government information systems overseas should serve as a lesson that the United States needs to continue to strengthen its defenses against those who would target the country’s financial, business and military systems, the commander of U.S. Northern Command said today.
Appearing on C-Span’s “Newsmakers,” Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., who leads both NorthCom and North American Aerospace Defense Command, cited recent cyber attacks against the former Soviet republic of Georgia in which government Web sites were intermittently knocked offline, as well as last year’s cyber attacks against government computer systems in the Baltic nation of Estonia.
“We need to ensure that we learn the lessons of those two events, and that we continue to strengthen an integrated process to defend ourselves against these kinds of intrusion,” Renuart said.
Since early this month, hackers have attacked Georgian servers and Web sites, forcing the government to relocate the sites to other servers. Some sites were defaced, while others were simply rendered unavailable.
The general said NorthCom relies on space- and land-based sensors to identify threats, and that intrusions into its computer networks could disrupt the command’s ability to provide warning of an attack.
“It’s critical to our mission that we are comfortable that we have a secure network, that it’s resilient to probes and attacks, and that it will be able to sustain good decision-making … for the nation’s leaders,” Renuart said.
Renuart said that though there is ample funding to combat the threat, efforts to do so have been somewhat “segmented.”
The Department of Homeland Security has the mission for the cyber-defense of the nation, and its role is to integrate the other elements of government into that effort, the general said. But cyber threats are not just a government problem, he said. Private industries — finance, health care, business and others – have a stake, Renuart noted.
“All of those have to come together in a unified effort if we are to maintain adequate defense against those who might intrude to our networks and try to disrupt them. It’s a big challenge,” Renuart said. He said better integration among the agencies is critical to success.
“If you are going to be successful at defending it, you have to have strong and close integration among the various agencies,” Renuart said.
The general stopped short of saying additional legislation is needed from Congress to better integrate the agencies, calling that a discussion for top U.S. leaders.
“Because this is such a broad area and it touches so many different elements of our society – business, medical care, information, certainly military and economic – many of those same organizations are struggling with ‘How do you pull them together in a more coherent fashion?’” Renuart said.
Renuart said that the departments of Homeland Security and Defense are working “aggressively” together alongside many private partner corporations. He also said that many in the private sector are “further advanced” than the Defense Department in some areas. He cited the banking and investing industries, which have advanced protections built into their systems, and said the government should partner with the private sector so that defense systems are compatible.
During the question-and-answer session with journalists on the program, the general was asked if he considers Russia a threat to the United States. Renuart called Russia a growing power. The country emerged from the Cold War struggling politically and economically, but now is stable economically and is expanding its sphere of influence, he said.
Russia also is becoming more active militarily, the general noted, sending its nuclear submarines and long-range bombers further from its shores. The country has also held recent tests of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Still, Renuart said, he is not yet concerned that the United States and Russia will face off within the international community any time soon.
“I’m not as worried that a Cold War relationship is returning so much,” Renuart said. “Those are things we have to pay attention to, but I think it is important not to swing the pendulum too much in an alarmist fashion.”
He said that the Russian military movements involving the U.S. military have been conducted “professionally” and in compliance with U.S. requests.
Renuart was also asked about the Arctic region and its increasing significance in national security. An increase in navigable water in the region has resulted in increased traffic by military, research and tourist vessels.
Renuart said his concerns are how to ensure adequate search and rescue capability, maintain a presence that can monitor movement of other military forces in the region, and ensure that the United States is involved in discussions and negotiations about military movement in the region.
NORAD monitors the air space over the Arctic.
“I don’t see a threat to the nation coming from the Arctic,” Renuart said. “But I do see security concerns that will arise as you have nations compete for resources, as you have nations compete for passage, as you have commercial interests competing for passage through the area. All of those have a security element, and I think we just have to have a good discussion about it.”
Tunnel systems along the U.S.-Mexican border also came up in the questioning. The tunnels are used by criminals for drug and weapons smuggling, and U.S. officials have long feared they also could be used by terrorists. Renuart said his command is “increasingly successful” at finding the tunnels and passing the information on to law enforcement officials, who investigate and monitor them.
Technology used first in Afghanistan now is helping to pinpoint border tunnels, or potential tunnel locations. But Renuart called the tunnels a “reality and a challenge” and said the narcotics traffickers are “learning adversaries.”
“As you close one route, they’ll open another,” Renuart said.
Renuart said that as officials are successful interdicting by the air, traffickers move to the sea. As U.S. officials stop more by sea, traffickers go underground.
“If we believed we have solved the problem, we are almost guaranteeing it will come back. You can’t take your eye off the ball in this kind of a situation,” Renuart said.
The general said his command works closely with other agencies in its efforts on the border and across the United States. He called NorthCom’s relationship with its 60 federal partners extremely “close and solid.”
“We are seeing a team now that is closer-knit than maybe ever before,” Renuart said.
Forty-five of the agencies have assigned senior officials to NorthCom’s headquarters. They are integrated in the planning and operations and interagency coordination process. Renuart said the days of frictions among governmental agencies are over.
“Those days are gone. We are working hand in hand,” he said. “We are seeing now a synergy that is really strong.”
This type of interagency cooperation is critical as NorthCom tries to focus efforts across an array of potential threats to the United States, Renuart said. Every day his command monitors threats overseas, develops roles of missile defense, looks for air threats inside U.S. borders and provides military support relief efforts after natural and man-made disasters and threats.
“On any given day, one of them will be our highest priority,” Renuart said.
“What keeps me awake is making sure that our team is focused on the many threats out there, and not taking any one for granted, not leaving any one unobserved,” he said.
Fred W. Baker III (AFPS)