Cyber attacks are near the top of the list of most serious threats facing the United States, with the rivaling concerns about terrorism and North Korea, intelligence officials with President Barack Obama's administration said.
James Clapper, the Obama administration's national security director, and Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, were among the officials that pointed to cyber attacks as top threats during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
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Clapper, a retired Air Force general, said he has not seen a "more diverse array of threats and challenges" for U.S. national security during his time in the defense and intelligence communities. Clapper led off with cyber attacks in his Senate testimony about security threats facing the U.S.
"I cannot overemphasize its significance," Clapper said. "Increasingly, state and non-state actors are gaining and using cyber expertise. These capabilities put all sectors of our country at risk, from government and private networks to critical infrastructures."
Intelligence agencies see interest from terrorist organizations in acquiring offensive cyber capabilities, he added. Cyber criminals are using black markets to sell hacking tools to a number of organizations, he said.
Asked what threats worry him the most, Mueller identified cyberattacks. The FBI investigates cyber attacks related to criminal and to terrorist activity, he said. Terrorist groups continue to use the Internet to recruit followers, he added.
Committee members also raised concerns about cyber attacks. Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, called on Congress to pass a bill that would encourage information-sharing about cyber threats among private businesses and between businesses and government agencies. A recent executive order signed by Obama enables more information-sharing from the government to businesses, but businesses need protection from lawsuits before they will be comfortable sharing their information, Coats said.
"This is a serious threat, and we need to get on it," Coats said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and committee chairwoman, said she plans to introduce an information-sharing bill soon. Two members of the House of Representatives introduced the controversial information-sharing bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), in February.
Even as the threat of physical terrorism against the U.S. is diminishing, the threat of cybe rattacks and cyber espionage is growing, Feinstein said. Recent reports suggest "massive cyber penetrations" into U.S. companies, she said.
During the hearing, Clapper raised concerns about budget cuts forced under the congressional process called sequestration. Intelligence agencies will be forced to cut each program by 7 percent during this current fiscal year, and those cuts will hamper the agencies' ability to acquire the technology needed to fight cyber attacks, he said. The cuts will also hurt national security in several other ways, he said.
Also during the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, questioned Clapper and Mueller about intelligence agencies' surveillance of U.S. citizens inside the U.S. Pressed by Wyden, Clapper said the U.S National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency do not "wittingly" conduct surveillance on U.S. citizens inside the country.
Wyden asked Mueller if the FBI needs a court-ordered warrant, requiring law enforcement to show probable cause of a crime, or uses a less strict standard to conduct surveillance on U.S. residents. With some disagreements in U.S. courts about the appropriate standard, it depends on the circumstance, Mueller said.
The FBI will "see where the courts go," Mueller said.
"You have identified the exact reason why I am trying to get the answer," Wyden said. "There's no doubt we are going to watch what the courts do in the days ahead. The question is, what would be the rights of Americans while that is still being fleshed out?"
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.