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article imageCyber attack biggest threat to US, say security heads in new poll

By Robert Myles     Jan 9, 2014 in Politics
Washington - Cyber-warfare is the most significant threat to the United States, say almost half the respondents, all leaders in the field of US national security, in a new poll, carried out by specialist defense publication Defense News.
Also in the poll, the first of its kind among those with responsibility for the nation’s security, respondents said leaks to The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden had, on the whole, shone a light on the debate concerning widespread surveillance.
Respondents also expressed pessimism concerning US defense spending, procurement and value for money in defense contracts.
While a large minority of those polled, drawn from the military, congressional staffs and the defense industry, saw cyber-warfare as the major threat facing the US, views on the next most serious threat split clearly along party lines.
Those identifying as Republicans viewed terrorism as second only to the cyber threat. Democrats put climate change in second place.
The pollsters took soundings from more than 350 senior defense leaders in late November 2013. Those interviewed were asked to respond to two dozen questions covering a range of defense issues.
But as Defense News points out, the poll comes with a number of caveats relating to the political hue of those polled. Respondents were far more likely to identify as Republican (38.5 percent) rather than Democrat (13.5 percent).
That’s a very different picture from the nation at large where a December Gallup Poll put the Democrats 30 percent and the Republicans at 24 percent, measuring support for the two main political parties among the US public.
Among respondents who said they worked for the military, the divergence between GOP supporters and Democrats was even more marked. Just more than one-third of those polled classed themselves as independents.
Across the political spectrum, cyber-warfare emerged as the main concern of respondents. Overall 45.1 percent of respondents put the cyber threat in number one position. Republicans ranked the cyber threat equally with terrorism at 36.3 percent, but both Democrats (42.4 percent) and independents (55 percent) placed it as the clear number one danger.
The possibility of cyber-attack has moved up the political agenda on both sides of the Atlantic recently. Back in October 2012, then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a stark warning that the US faced the possibility of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor,” painting a picture that “an aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches.”
Panetta had then gone on to warn, “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
While in the United Kingdom, so seriously does the Ministry of Defense see the cyber threat that it announced plans for a new £500 million “cyber army,” September last.
Other points to emerge from the Defense News poll were:
1. Democrats were less than half as likely to class terrorism (18.2 percent) as the leading threat. In number two position for Democrats was the threat posed by climate change at 21.2 percent. In stark contrast, no Republican respondent cited climate change as a threat.
2. Independents were in line with Republicans, listing terrorism as second (20 percent) behind cyber-warfare. Among independents, China (13 percent) and climate change (7 percent) were in third and fourth places, respectively.
3. On possible threats in specific geographical areas, there was broad consensus among all three political divisions. Iran ranked as the biggest threat in the Middle East (54 percent), ahead of terrorism (43.3 percent). In Asia, significantly more respondents overall saw China as the biggest threat (47.6 percent), with North Korea trailing well behind in second place at 28.8 percent.
4. On threats to US allies in Europe, Republicans saw terrorism (54.8 percent) as the main danger, ahead of cyber-warfare on 30.7 percent. Democrats, on the other hand, put cyber-warfare as the number one threat facing European allies at 40.6 percent, a view shared by Independents who also ranked cyber-attack 41.8 percent) as the main threat in Europe.
When it came to defense spending, differing political views were clearly defined. Overall 37.2 percent of respondents said defense spending was too low, but among Republicans, a majority (50.2 percent) shared that view. In contrast, only 22.9 percent of Democrats polled thought defense spending too low. The figure for Democrats who said defense spending was too high (48.6 percent) almost mirrored the proportion of Republicans diametrically opposed to that view.
The Snowden factor — ‘an incredibly brilliant media strategy’
Almost half of all respondents (47.2 percent) said the disclosures of extensive NSA surveillance programs by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, had helped the debate on surveillance. But, drilling down to the political strata, the overall figure concealed a tectonic divide. While a clear majority of Democrats, (68.8 percent), and independents (58.2 percent) said Snowden’s revelations had assisted debate, 57.7 percent of Republicans said they’d hurt the debate.
Commenting on this aspect of the Defense News poll, Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Stimson Center who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, said, “In a community where cyber is seen as the biggest threat, what Snowden did was helping debate? That’s fascinating,” adding, “It reinforces my sense that I don’t think [Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.] or [Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.] are getting traction on this issue. Right now, it’s not winning, because whatever one thinks about Edward Snowden, his media strategy is incredibly brilliant. The drip-drip-drip is working.”
Defense contracting quagmire
Although there was commonality across those polled that defense spending was likely to decrease, sequester or not, over the next five years, that pessimism was countered by the shared view that a major factor contributing to an inflated defense budget was the cumbersome system of procurement for US defense acquisitions. A startling 83.6 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement: “US acquisition policy is effective in bringing best value to the US taxpayer.”
And on regulatory reforms intended to simply overly bureaucratic defense procurement, respondents’ views were also condemnatory: 73.4 percent disagreed with the notion that acquisition reforms have yielded “significant savings.”
Nearly as many, 70.9 percent of respondents, said acquisition regulations stifled innovation.
If the poll’s findings are correct and cyber-attack emerges as the next major threat to the US, that’s a worrying prospect. For it’s innovation, not boots on the ground, that’ll be decisive in countering such a threat.
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