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Cyberwar With China: Former Intelligence Chief Says It is Aiming at America's "Soft Underbelly"

February 8, 2010

Nathan Gardels
Huffington Post
February 7, 2010

Google and the National Security Agency are
engaging in a cooperative investigation to
determine who exactly from China was trolling
through Google's proprietary networks, including
e-mail exchanges of Chinese dissidents. They are
also joining together to develop new defenses
against malicious intrusion and attacks on America's cyber-infrastructure.

Though America's cyber-vulnerability has long
been a concern of the intelligence agencies, the
Google episode has catapulted it to a national security priority.

No one knows more about China's cyberwar
capacities than Mike McConnell, who was director
of National Intelligence, the supreme authority
over all U.S. intelligence agencies, from Feb.
2007 to Jan. 2009, and director of the National
Security Agency from 1992 to 1996.

After attacks last Spring on the Pentagon and the
New York Stock Exchange, I sat down with him to
discuss the chief suspect, then also China, and
to get the lay of the cyberwar battlefield.

Some defense analysts say that 90 percent of the
probes and scans of American defense systems as
well as commercial computer networks come from
China. So I asked McConnell what he thought about that estimate.

"I don't know if it is 90 percent," McConnell
hedged, "but they are determined to be the best.
Probably the best in the world in the cyber realm
are the United States, then the Russians, the
British, the Israelis and the French. The next tier is the Chinese.

"The Chinese," he continued, "are exploiting our
systems for information advantage -- looking for
the characteristics of a weapons system by a
defense contractor or academic research on plasma
physics, for example -- not in order to destroy
data and do damage. But, for now, I believe they
are deterred from destroying data both by the
need to export to the U.S. and by the need to
maintain a stable currency and stable global markets.

"But what happens if we have a war? A capability
for information exploitation could quickly be
used for information attack to destroy systems on which the U.S. depends."

Surely, though, I suggested, China is not the
only one trolling around for information and
probing security vulnerabilities in cyberspace?

"Every nation with advanced technology is
exploring options to establish policy and rules
for how to use this new capability to wage war.
Everyone. All the time," McConnell acknowledged.

China is on the screen now because of Google.
But, I asked, what about the terror threat?

"Terrorists groups today are ranked near the
bottom of cyberwar capability. Criminal
organizations are more sophisticated. There is a
hierarchy. You go from nation-states, who can
destroy things, to criminals, who can steal
things, to aggravating but sophisticated hackers.

"At some point, however, the terrorists will get
a couple of graduates from one of the best
universities with skills in cyber capabilities.

"Sooner or later, terror groups will achieve
cyber-sophistication. It's like nuclear
proliferation, only far easier. Once you have the
knowledge, you don't have to spend years
enriching uranium and testing long-range
missiles. It wouldn't take long to obtain a
sophisticated attack capability. Unlike
nation-states that have an interest in a stable
globe with stable markets, the terrorists will
not be deterred from damaging our data to achieve their goals."

One of the things Google and the NSA are trying
to determine is who in China is launching this
continuing series of cyber-probes? Is it the
government? The People's Liberation Army?

"Their intelligence collection is coordinated,"
the former spymaster surmised before the Google
attacks. "But just as in the U.S., there are
competing bureaucracies carrying out the
cyber-exploitation mission. In China today, there
are thousands of people in a sustained effort to
collect intelligence, many of them on an
entrepreneurial basis, as it were, within a competing bureaucratic structure."

Are these ever more frequent probes some kind of
aggressive initiative on China's part, I
wondered, or do they somehow feel threatened by
the U.S. and thus are building their own defenses?

"China understands that a strategic vulnerability
of the United States is its soft cyber
underbelly. I believe they seek to 'own' that
space," says McConnell. "The Chinese received a
big shock when watching the action of Desert
Storm (during the first Iraq war). They saw the
power of the U.S. linking computer technology
with weaponry to attain precision. We had dropped
1,000 bombs in World War II to destroy targets
effectively. In Vietnam, it took hundreds of bombs. Today it takes one.

"One target. One bomb. We dominated the warfare
sphere. We owned the ability to locate and see
targets through navigation and satellite imagery
others did not have. We had air superiority. We
could take a valuable target out with one bomb at the time of our choosing.

"I believe the Chinese concluded from the Desert
Storm experience that their counter approach had
to be to challenge America's control of the
battle space by building capabilities to knock
out our satellites and invading our cyber
networks. In the name of the defense of China in
this new world, the Chinese feel they have to
remove that advantage of the U.S. in the event of a war. "

For this old intelligence hand who has been
listening in on China for years and probing their
intentions, that nation's cyberwar capacity is
part and parcel of their growing military might.

"The Chinese have developed the capacity to shoot
down satellites. They have developed
over-the-horizon radar capabilities. They have
missiles that can be retargeted in flight. In
short, they are seeking ways to keep us at bay in
the event of a conflict, to not let us approach
China. In time, as their power, influence and
wealth grow, China likely will develop 'power projection' weapons systems."

Summing up, McConnell left little doubt about the
challenge the U.S. faces from China.

"They see the Middle Kingdom as the center of the
world," he said. "They will have gone from what
they describe as 'the century of shame' to 'our
century' going forward. And they want to protect
that from the U.S. or anybody else. The Chinese
want to dominate this information space. So, they
want to develop the capability of attacking our
'information advantage' while denying us this capability."

Only a year ago China joined readily with
President Obama at the G-20 in a coordinated
effort to stem the economic meltdown and keep the
world economy afloat. Now, suddenly this winter,
the U.S. and China seem headed toward some kind
of clash. Google has been added to the list of
contentious issues along with Taiwan, Tibet and
Tiananmen. It might be wise in the circumstances
to heed Mike McConnell's considered worries.

* Nathan Gardels -- Editor, NPQ, Global Services
of Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media
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