LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Another debate is shaping up over whether this country should prepare for a war in cyberspace. On one side, the Pentagon, with a forthcoming plan that will deal head-on with cyber war issues. On the other side, the White House coordinator for cyber security who says the prospect of cyber war is remote.
NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: No one can say Howard Schmidt is unprepared to serve as President Obama's cyber-security coordinator. He was a munitions expert in the Air Force. As a police officer, he pioneered the use of computer databases for crime-solving. He was a computer forensics expert for the FBI and the top security officer at Microsoft and EBay. He brings 40 years of experience to his White House cyber position. And he does not see a lot that's new in the way a hacker, these days, works his way into a computer network.
Mr. HOWARD SCHMIDT (White House Cyber-Security Coordinator): Ultimately you get to the point where you basically own the computer system. That's a very, very standard method of operation that people use and have used for twenty-some odd years of getting into the systems.
GJELTEN: Standard operating procedure. But other security experts say the cyber threats out there these days are unprecedented. Consider the Pentagon view. Here's deputy defense secretary William Lynn, speaking about the cyber war threat, at a conference in February organized by the cyber-security company RSA.
Secretary WILLIAM LYNN (Deputy Defense Secretary): The most dangerous cyber threat is destruction, where cyber tools are used to cause actual physical damage. This development, which marks a strategic shift in the cyber threat, is only just emerging.
GJELTEN: If a cyber weapon were used to blow up a pipeline or a power grid, there would have to be a decision about how to respond and who would give the order. But Howard Schmidt is not that focused on cyber war scenarios. He doesn't even use the term. What we're seeing now, he says, is still crime and espionage. Talking about cyber war, he says, is a diversion from the real cyber-security challenges and a mischaracterization of current threats.
Mr. SCHMIDT: My father was in a war. My son's been in the war. I've been in a war. And this is not what we're going through right now.
GJELTEN: This debate may seem academic, but U.S. cyber policy is at stake. One senior military official who deals exclusively with cyber issues, says it's, quote, "the height of naivete," unquote, to think it's not necessary to prepare for someone using a cyber weapon on a power grid. And Deputy Defense Secretary Lynn came close to saying that in February.
Secretary LYNN: Of course it is possible that destructive cyber attacks will never be launched. Regrettably, however, few weapons in the history of warfare, once created, have gone unused.
GJELTEN: Developing a cyber war defense, Lynn said, will be a key goal of the Pentagon's new cyber strategy, due to be introduced later this month. But first, there has to be a resolution of any dispute within the administration over how much emphasis to put on cyber war scenarios.
At the White House, Howard Schmidt won't say he's gotten any pushback from the Pentagon for his refusal to use the term cyber war, though there have been, he says, conversations about the issue. In fact, disputes such as this often reflect competing bureaucratic interests.
Stewart Baker was assistant secretary for policy at the homeland security department in the last administration. Behind the cyber definition question, he says, are longstanding departmental rivalries.
Mr. STEWART BAKER (Assistant Secretary for Policy, Homeland Security Department): This is a semantic issue that is really a proxy for a whole bunch of turf issues: Who's in charge? Who's going to make policy? Who's going to be taking the initiative?
GJELTEN: If the cyber challenge is viewed from a war-fighting perspective, the Pentagon would be in charge. But an emphasis on meeting the cyber war threat could mean businesses have to deal with more expensive security requirements. As the White House cyber-security coordinator, Howard Schmidt has to consider all those factors and not just scare people.
Mr. SCHMIDT: When the President said this is an important issue, it was said about fixing the issue, not raising alarms. Cause there're plenty of people out there to raise alarms. It's how do we look at a rational way to move forward, that's good for the economy, that's good for national security, that's good for public safety, without a lot of hype out there.
GJELTEN: Of course, too much disagreement over the nature of the cyber threat and how to respond could lead to policy stalemates, or leave key questions unanswered during what everyone agrees is a critical time. .TEXT: Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.