Today's date:
Spring 2010

Cyberwar: Former Intelligence Chief Says China Aims at America’s Soft Underbelly

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. His most recent book, with Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, is American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.

Los Angeles—Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) are engaging in a cooperative investigation to determine who exactly from China was trolling through Google’s proprietary networks, including e-mail exchanges of Chinese dissidents. They are also joining together to develop new defenses against malicious intrusion and attacks on America’s cyber-infrastructure.

Though America’s cyber-vulnerability has long been a concern of the intelligence agencies, the Google episode has catapulted it to a national security priority.

No one knows more about China’s cyberwar capacities than Mike McConnell, who was director of National Intelligence, the supreme authority over all United States intelligence agencies, from February, 2007 to January, 2009, and director of the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996.

After there were attacks last spring on the Pentagon and the New York Stock Exchange, I sat down with him to discuss the chief suspect, then also China, and to get the lay of the cyberwar battlefield.

Some defense analysts say that 90 percent of the probes and scans of American defense systems as well as commercial computer networks come from China. So I asked McConnell what he thought about that estimate.

“I don’t know if it is 90 percent,” McConnell hedged, “but they are determined to be the best. Probably the best in the world in the cyber realm are the United States, then the Russians, the British, the Israelis and the French. The next tier is the Chinese.

“The Chinese,” he continued, “are exploiting our systems for information advantage—looking for the characteristics of a weapons system by a defense contractor or academic research on plasma physics, for example—not in order to destroy data and do damage. But, for now, I believe they are deterred from destroying data both by the need to export to the US and by the need to maintain a stable currency and stable global markets.

“But what happens if we have a war? A capability for information exploitation could quickly be used for information attack to destroy systems on which the US depends.”

Surely, though, I suggested, China is not the only one trolling around for information and probing security vulnerabilities in cyberspace?

“Every nation with advanced technology is exploring options to establish policy and rules for how to use this new capability to wage war. Everyone. All the time,” McConnell acknowledged.

China is on the screen now because of Google. But, I asked, what about the terror threat?

“Terrorist groups today are ranked near the bottom of cyberwar capability. Criminal organizations are more sophisticated. There is a hierarchy. You go from nation states, who can destroy things, to criminals, who can steal things, to aggravating but sophisticated hackers.

“At some point, however, the terrorists will get a couple of graduates from one of the best universities with skills in cyber capabilities.

“Sooner or later, terror groups will achieve cyber-sophistication. It’s like nuclear proliferation, only far easier. Once you have the knowledge, you don’t have to spend years enriching uranium and testing long-range missiles. It wouldn’t take long to obtain a sophisticated attack capability. Unlike nation states that have an interest in a stable globe with stable markets, the terrorists will not be deterred from damaging our data to achieve their goals.”

One of the things Google and the NSA are trying to determine is who in China is launching this continuing series of cyber-probes? Is it the government? The People’s Liberation Army?

“Their intelligence collection is coordinated,” the former spymaster surmised before the Google attacks. “But just as in the US, there are competing bureaucracies carrying out the cyber-exploitation mission. In China today, there are thousands of people in a sustained effort to collect intelligence, many of them on an entrepreneurial basis, as it were, within a competing bureaucratic structure.”

Are these ever more frequent probes some kind of aggressive initiative on China’s part, I wondered, or do they somehow feel threatened by the US and thus are building their own defenses?

“China understands that a strategic vulnerability of the United States is its soft cyber underbelly. I believe they seek to ‘own’ that space,” says McConnell. “The Chinese received a big shock when watching the action of Desert Storm (during the first Iraq war). They saw the power of the US linking computer technology with weaponry to attain precision. We had dropped 1,000 bombs in World War II to destroy targets effectively. In Vietnam, it took hundreds of bombs. Today it takes one.

“One target. One bomb. We dominated the warfare sphere. We owned the ability to locate and see targets through navigation and satellite imagery others did not have. We had air superiority. We could take a valuable target out with one bomb at the time of our choosing.

“I believe the Chinese concluded from the Desert Storm experience that their counter approach had to be to challenge America’s control of the battle space by building capabilities to knock out our satellites and invading our cyber networks. In the name of the defense of China in this new world, the Chinese feel they have to remove that advantage of the US in the event of a war. “

For this old intelligence hand who has been listening in on China for years and probing its intentions, that nation’s cyberwar capacity is part and parcel of its growing military might. “The Chinese have developed the capacity to shoot down satellites. They have developed over-the-horizon radar capabilities. They have missiles that can be retargeted in flight. In short, they are seeking ways to keep us at bay in the event of a conflict, to not let us approach China. In time, as their power, influence and wealth grow, China likely will develop ‘power projection’ weapons systems.”

Summing up, McConnell left little doubt about the challenge the US faces from China. “They see the Middle Kingdom as the center of the world,” he said. “They will have gone from what they describe as ‘the century of shame’ to ‘our century’ going forward. And they want to protect that from the US or anybody else. The Chinese want to dominate this information space. So, they want to develop the capability of attacking our ‘information advantage’ while denying us this capability.”

Only a year ago China joined readily with President Barack Obama at the G-20 in a coordinated effort to stem the economic meltdown and keep the world economy afloat. Now, suddenly this winter, the US and China seem headed toward some kind of clash. Google has been added to the list of contentious issues along with Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. It might be wise in the circumstances to heed Mike McConnell’s considered worries.