The cyberspies who don't love us

Analysts work in a watch and warning center of a cyber security defense lab at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Article Highlights

  • Cyber and espionage-related threats are undermining the safety of American forces

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  • DoD officials are worried that many documents stolen by Edward Snowden could include war plans

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  • The theft of so much defense-related information should be of concern to all of us.

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President Obama’s recent defense strategy and budget proposal have made clear that five years of defense cuts are reducing the American military’s capacity to protect our many interests around the world. With still more than a half-decade of sequestration left to go, Pentagon leaders are bracing for a challenging future as outlined in stark terms by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently.

Unfortunately, smaller budgets are not the only tests the Pentagon must deal with as it attempts to recruit, train and equip the force of today and tomorrow. Increasingly, the military is confronting a variety of cyber- and espionage-related threats that could undermine, and in some cases already is damaging, the safety of American forces and the effectiveness of contingency plans.

In congressional testimony earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that less than 10 percent of the documents — estimated by U.S. officials to potentially number as many as 1.7 million — that Edward Snowden stole dealt with domestic surveillance programs. Much of the remaining 90 percent may prove even more detrimental to American interests if released. 

For instance, Defense Intelligence Agency Director General Michael Flynn told National Public Radio that he is concerned Snowden made off with vast amounts of information regarding American defense capabilities that could eventually wind up in the possession of U.S. adversaries, including Russia. These kinds of disclosures are so damaging that the Director of National Intelligence’s January 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment report lists cyber, espionage and counterintelligence – and not terrorism — as the top threats to the United States.

According to Flynn, these documents could include war plans, as well as information on intelligence gathering methods, U.S. military operational capabilities and technology and weapons systems. He testified in February that these potential compromises would likely bring widespread changes across the military, including changing tactics, techniques and procedures, because the Pentagon is forced to assume the worst about the security of this compromised information.

This would not be the first time that sensitive information found its way into the hands of potential adversaries. Last June, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Frank Kendall testified that information relating to the Pentagon’s advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program was being stolen by hackers, giving away “a substantial advantage” for American military technological superiority.

One Pentagon report found last year that Chinese hackers have breached more than two dozen major weapons systems. This comes as part of a “widening Chinese campaign of espionage against U.S. defense contractors and government agencies,” as stated by the Washington Post. As the Chinese, Russians and Iranians steal American intellectual property and sensitive weapons information, the more easily they can design counter-capabilities for the battlefield. This both lowers the costs of potential conflict on their end while increasing the loss of life they could inflict upon American forces.

As defense budgets continue to contract, policymakers must be clear-eyed about the volume of threats facing the military. Pentagon leaders are already calling into question how long the U.S. military can retain its technological edge over others. These latest revelations are surely a chief reason behind growing concern in Washington. The theft of so much defense-related information should be of concern to all of us. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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