Chinese hackers "bombard" the Pentagon’s computer systems "by the millions each and every day" searching for a point of entry into the sensitive U.S. computing systems, according to officials speaking at an event on cybersecurity on Tuesday.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and other high-level former U.S. officials warned during a discussion at The American Center for Democracy (ACD) that the U.S. government is woefully underprepared to combat and repel even the most benign type of cyber attack.
"The Chinese are continuing to engage in not only economic but propaganda warfare over the Internet," Mukasey said at the event. Chinese hackers, many of them affiliated with the Communist government, routinely break into military computers and U.S. email accounts.
Former CIA director James Woolsey noted that a single relatively unsophisticated cyber attack could wreak widespread havoc on U.S. systems that are widely underprepared to handle such an assault.
"We have, to put it mildly, a very serious cyber security problem," Woolsey said at the event.
The U.S. electric grid remains particularly vulnerable to a cyber attack, the primary weapon of choice for nations such as China, Russia, and Iran.
"We’ve not done a responsible job taking care of our infrastructure because no one’s in charge," Woolsey said, decrying the Obama administration’s failure to implement concrete safeguard meant to deter such attacks. "We’ve got a lot of work to do."
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, for instance, "could be absolutely devastating to all electronics," including those used by U.S. security agencies such as the CIA, the NSA, and the military, Woolsey warned.
The Russians, the Israelis, and a slew of other governments have been "hardening" their cyber defenses against such an attack, but the United States has done nothing on this front, Woolsey said.
"It’s possible to create such a pulse with the detonation of a relatively simple nuclear weapon," he explained. "It doesn’t have to be complicated … it just has to go off 50 miles" above the earth.
The threat is not hypothetical, Woolsey added.
"We have now a couple of people" such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who "are quite capable of Hitler-like behavior."
Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), who promised President Obama would sign comprehensive cyber security legislation by the end of the year, was also in attendance.
Mukasey also decried the Obama administration’s failure to offer more than platitudes on the subject of cyber security.
"It’s also fair to say from a large, macro standpoint, we’re not much nearer to solving this problem of unauthorized entry into our computer systems than five years ago," when the program first surfaced in a major way, Mukasey said.
The former attorney general criticized an Obama administration cyber security report issued in 2011. The report offered only platitudes, Mukasey said.
It’s "not the kind of thing that’s going to make either Ahmadinejad or our friend in North Korea lose any sleep," he said.
The U.S. is "backing" itself "into a situation where the only strategy we’re wiling to adopt is a strategy of retaliation" on the cyber front.
Some of this is due to some Internet privacy advocates running "around in fright wigs conjuring up images of big brother," Mukasey said.
Other experts warned that the U.S. financial system—and by turn the global financial system—could easily be disrupted by hackers in an attack that would cost banks and average Americans an untold amount of money.
"What keeps me up at night is the fragility of this financial system," which could be easily brought down by malicious hackers, such as the Anonymous group, according to Christina Ray, senior managing director for market intelligence at Omnis, an intelligence community consultant.
An attack on the millions of electronic global trades that take place each day could "cause a cascade of massive losses and cause banks to lose money," Ray said.
About $4 trillion is moved around each day via global networks.