And Mike McConnell the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and director of national intelligence during the Bush administration, recently said in a Washington Post column that the U.S is not only fighting such a war, it's also losing the battle.
That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard. who warned Congress about U.S military and government networks being hit by attacks that appeared to originate from China. The attacks are challenging the military's ability to "operate freely in the cyber commons," he said.
Those views are shared by security experts in both the government and the private sector who see the relentless probing and attacks on U.S agencies and commercial interests as a precursor to something more devastating. The concern is prompting action of sorts in Washington. In just the past month, two major cyber security bills have been proposed. One would tie U.S financial aid to a country's willingness to fight cyber crime. The other would strengthen domestic cyber security and require the president to work with private industry in responding to a cyber crisis. That's a forgone conclusion, given how much of the nation's cyber infrastructure is in private hands.
A cyber security ambassador?
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is rumored to be considering the creation of a cyber security ambassador for the U.N. That's important, since there's no settled definition of cyber war, and various nations are already trying to figure out what a cyber war entails and how it would be declared -- and fought.
The first step to formulating an organized response is to define cyber war correctly, said Robert Rodriguez, a former Secret Service special agent and founder of the Security Innovation Network. Calling what's gone on in recent years a "cyber war" only complicates things, he said.
"War connotes huge conflict at a grand level between nations and societies," Rodriguez said.
It also involves the use of military force to essentially destroy another nation's capabilities and will to resist, according to James Lews, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The cyber equivalent of such a conflict would involve a nation using cyber means to attain political ends in another country, said Lewis, who led a commission that developed a set of cyber security recommendations for President Obama last year.
"When you look at the number of systems that have been Trojaned or compromised, you could say our cyber battlefield has been prepped and can be used against us," admits Jerry Dixon, former director of the National cyber Security Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
"However, the adversary has to decide if the intelligence they're getting from our systems and networks is more valuable than attacking them to take them offline," he said. "If they attack and take them offline, they will lose insight into what we're doing."
Making such distinctions is crucial from a strategic response standpoint. "Pronouncements that we are in a cyber war or face cyber terror conflate problems and make effective response more difficult," Lewis said.