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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The director of National Intelligence says the prospect of a cyber attack is now the number one security threat. In remarks this week, James Clapper ranked the cyber threat above terrorism. Plenty of leaders have issued warnings, like former defense secretary Leon Panetta's statement about a cyber Pearl Harbor. NPR's Tom Gjelten has covered this threat for years, yet some of the rhetoric got him wondering if the threat is overstated.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The country's top intelligence officer and the top cyber officer were both on Capitol Hill this week warning that the danger of computer attacks needs to be taken a lot more seriously. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said it's hard to over-estimate its significance. General Keith Alexander, head of the U.S. military's Cyber Command, explained the threat to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: All our systems today, our power systems, our water systems, our governments, our industry, depend on computers, depend on computerized switches, depend on these networks. All that are at risk. If an adversary were to get in, they could essentially destroy those components.

REPRESENTATIVE LINDSEY GRAHAM: Could do as much or more damage than the attacks of 9/11?

ALEXANDER: That's correct. I think it would.

GJELTEN: A cyber Pearl Harbor? A cyber attack as bad as 9/11? But Clapper and Alexander's testimonies were worded carefully. Clapper, speaking for the U.S. intelligence community, said there's only, quote, a remote chance, unquote, of a major computer attack during the next two years. Russia and China, the powers capable of mounting such an attack, have no reason to, Clapper suggested.

General Alexander of Cyber Command said foreign leaders know a big cyber attack on the United States might be traced back to them and therefore would not want to run the risk of a U.S. counter-attack. So is the scare talk just hype? James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says he put that that question to what he calls one of the leading hypers of the cyber threat.

JAMES LEWIS: I said, oh, come on, you know it's not going to be Pearl Harbor. And he said, yeah, but he wants people to pay attention and nobody's doing anything. So there are some folks out there who believed we needed to hype the threat to get the country to move, on the theory that democracies don't do anything until they've had a disaster. He's probably right. But I think it has been over-hyped.

GJELTEN: Cyber security experts in both industry and government say the country is unprepared to deal with computer threats. But the immediate problem is cyber crime and cyber espionage, not cyber war. President Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, this week accused computer hackers from China of stealing confidential business information and technology.

THOMAS DONILON: Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft through cyber intrusions emanating from China on a very large scale.

GJELTEN: Industry and government leaders say the everyday theft of trade secrets is undermining the U.S. economy. Beyond that, there is the danger in the future that some country might be tempted to launch a major cyber attack that could knock out the power grid or paralyze the financial system. That would be seen as an act of war, according to U.S. officials.

It's unlikely now, but some up and coming cyber powers are a cause for concern. Cyber expert James Lewis notes that Iran, previously considered a minor cyber player, apparently went after the state oil company in Saudi Arabia recently.

LEWIS: One thing most of us didn't expect was the Iranians to go from zero to 60 in about eight months. China, Russia, these are responsible countries. They're not going to start a war. How comfortable do you feel saying that about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

GJELTEN: At this point, even the leaders of Iran may see little reason to spark a major cyber confrontation with the United States. That calculation, however, could at some point change, considering the current hostility between the two countries. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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