Defending secrecy, building the nation’s cyberdefense

Last week, two of the nation’s top military officials gave a full-throated defense of the government’s data collection programs and the importance of robust cyberdefense capabilities.

In separate speeches, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey argued controversial phone and Internet-monitoring programs were part of a necessary expansive plan to defend the country from the new cyberlandscape.

“One thing is clear: Cyber has escalated from an issue of moderate concern to one of the most serious threats to our national security,” Dempsey said Wednesday during a speech at a Brookings Institution forum.


The next day, Alexander echoed Dempsey. “If you look at the statistics and what’s going on, we’re seeing an increase in the disruptive and destructive attacks,” he said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International Cyber Symposium in Baltimore. “And I am concerned that those will continue. As a nation, we must be ready.”

Alexander — whose agency has been under scrutiny in the weeks since Edward Snowden released information about secret data collection and surveillance programs — said the public outing of NSA’s clandestine programs has damaged their effectiveness. Using two separate programs, NSA has been collecting telephone metadata — anonymous records of phone logs — and Internet activity — emails, browsing history, etc. — for several years.

“The damage is real,” he said. “I believe the irresponsible release of classified information about these programs will have a long-term detrimental impact on the intelligence community’s ability to detect future attacks. These leaks have inflamed and sensationalized for ignoble purposes the work that the intelligence community does lawfully under strict oversight and compliance.”

Alexander provided Congress with 54 examples of terrorist plots foiled using information from these programs. If these potential assailants had known of the government’s communications monitoring programs, Alexander said, these might not be foiled plots.

“Those who wish us harm now know how we counter their actions,” he said. “These leaks have caused significant and irreversible damage to our nation’s security.


Which is why the U.S. must invest in cyberdefense across all federal agencies, Alexander said. Dempsey, in his speech, detailed what this investment will look like. In four years, he said, the government will pour $23 billion into U.S. Cyber Command. That’s 4,000 additional cyberoperators and three 24-hour teams: a national mission team to counter cyberattacks on the U.S., a global team supporting combatant commanders and a network defense team to protect the networks supporting military operations worldwide.

And then there’s the NSA’s mysterious $1.5 billion NSA data storage facility being built in Utah. According to the Denver Post on Monday, recent leaks showed the facility will house “among the most sophisticated supercomputers and largest reserves of data storage on the planet,” with the capability to process roughly one thousand trillion calculations per second. It will make the data collection programs even more powerful.

“We’re being attacked,” Alexander said. “And we’ve got to figure out how to fix that.”

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