Former White House security experts issued a warning this week to the U.S. and Ukraine that if economic sanctions and global tension against Russia continue to escalate, the country could turn to cyber warfare for retaliation.
Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta raised their concerns at a cybersecurity panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“If we move to the heavy sanctions, the sectoral sanctions … the Russians are going to strike back in some way,” Clarke said.
The counterterrorism “czar” as he’s come to be called served as a White House counter-terrorism expert in the George H.W. Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and until 2003 in the George W. Bush administration.
“[Russians] can’t strike back … [with] economic sanctions that would have the same kind of effect. What they can do … is a cyberattack to get back at us … attacking our financial institutions in ways that we’ll never be able to prove it was them but we’ll suffer the pain,” Clarke said according to a Huffington Post report.
Panetta, who served as director of the CIA before becoming Defense Secretary in the Obama administration until last year, echoed those concerns and encouraged both countries to begin working on preventative measures now.
“We’ve seen [Russia] use [cyber warfare] in Georgia. We’ve seen some elements of that being used in Crimea,” Panetta said. “If [Russia] has an attack plan, a cyber element is very much a part of that attack plan. It takes down communications, takes down missile systems, takes down the counter attack …”
Panetta told the panel Russia’s cyber-warfare capabilities were second only to the U.S. itself, and described the tactic as the “battleground of the future.”
“The sophistication of what’s being developed today has the ability to create a lot of hell,” Panetta said. “[Our] adversaries are looking at computer systems that run our electrical grid … chemical systems … water systems … transportation systems … financial systems.”
Other panelists noted the increasing frequency of cyberattacks against private companies like Target, where hackers stole the customer transaction information of some 110 million customers during the fourth-quarter shopping season last year. Private security research group Ponemon Institute reports an 18 percent increase in the frequency of successful cyberattacks against companies from 2012 to 2013.
The Securities and Exchange Commission announced last month it will begin investigating the cybersecurity of major Wall Street financial firms — one among many future initiatives Clarke believes government, public and private companies will work together on to improve cybersecurity overall.