Former CIA Director Stresses Risk of Cyberattacks

Michael Hayden talks about national security in the digital age.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden with SMPA Director Frank Sesno.
February 20, 2013

Cyberattacks may be the biggest weapon countries have in their playbook of modern day espionage. That’s why retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, believes the recent cyber espionage against U.S. government and private industry computers by the Chinese military highlights differences in the practice between the United States and other nation states.

His comments came Tuesday evening during a discussion in the Jack Morton Auditorium on “Spies, Cyberattacks and Social Media: National Security in the Digital Age” with Frank Sesno, director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs. The event was co-sponsored by SMPA and the Elliott School of International Affairs, and broadcast on C-SPAN.

“Espionage is about stealing information,” said Gen. Hayden. “We steal things that protect your liberty and protect your security. We do not steal things for your commerce or for your profit. The Chinese do, and that’s a very significant difference.”

A retired U.S. Air Force four-star general, Gen. Hayden is a principal of The Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm, and writes and speaks regularly about national and international intelligence issues.

While digital media has transformed the practice of intelligence gathering, the new technology has also created significant threats to national security. Mr. Sesno referenced a story in Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times that detailed how an Alexandria, Va., security firm linked China’s military to cyberattacks on more than 140 U.S. corporations and about a dozen U.S. local, state and federal government agencies.

Gen. Hayden said White House officials have known for some time about China’s espionage involving a range of American infrastructures, including power grids and gas lines.

“It’s very disturbing, and it should not be allowed to stand,” he said. “I fear the Chinese presence on these networks, and we have to do something about it.”

During the discussion, Mr. Sesno played a clip from President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address in which he talked about stepping up efforts to thwart cyberattacks.

Gen. Hayden said remedies include beefing up defenses of computer networks and developing a range of contingency plans. But blocking China’s efforts completely seems unlikely.

“I stand back in awe of the breadth, depth, sophistication and persistence of the Chinese espionage effort against the United States,” he said.

As computer hacking becomes more prevalent, Gen. Hayden said much of the information gathering that used to be a large part of espionage is easier to attain now through the internet, social media and business trends aimed at providing public access to vast arrays of information.

“So much more of what you need to know is just out there,” he said.

Does that make it easier to stop the next 9/11, asked Mr. Sesno.

“It’s not that the signals are not there, or will not be there,” said Gen. Hayden. “It’s separating the signals from the background noise. It’s really, really hard.”