Panetta Warns of Security Threats, Urges U.S. Vigilance

The greatest threat to security in the 21st century comes from cyberattacks, says the former secretary of defense.


Al Qaida remains a menace, growing in places like Somalia and Yemen. The nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran's support of global terrorism are continuing dangers. The chaos in Syria represents risk. Russia is worrisome.

But the greatest threat to security in the 21st century comes from cyber attacks, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

Now is not the time for the United States to pull back from global engagement, he said.

"We have to be vigilant. We have to be prepared. There are a lot of threats out there," said Panetta, speaking before the California Police Chiefs Association in Monterey.

Panetta compared the role of the men and women serving in the military with that of police officers, saying they share a similar mission of protecting the American people and the associated risks.

He thanked the association for opening its conference with a tribute to Sgt. Loran "Butch" Baker and Elizabeth Butler, the two Santa Cruz police detectives killed while performing their duty a year ago Wednesday.

"Both of them are truly fallen heroes," he said.

Panetta, who served 16 years in the House of Representatives before joining the Clinton administration in 1993, criticized the gridlock and partisanship in Washington "at a time when we are facing all these threats." He talked of the sacrifice of the nation's military during the past 10 years, of the lives lost and the soldiers who returned from duty with "horrific wounds."

"If men and women are willing to put their lives on the line, surely people elected to office should find a little of that same courage to govern," he said.

Panetta said industrial espionage is just the start of the problem of cyber security. The bigger worry is the development of viruses that can take down whole computer networks. He pointed to the destruction of 30,000 computers at Aramco Oil in Saudi Arabia, a 2012 attack blamed on Iran.

"They're looking at our grid. They're looking at our transportation system," Panetta said. "This could destroy the world."

Speaking after Panetta, California Attorney General Kamala Harris picked up the point, saying local law enforcement needed to be given the resources and training to combat the threat. Not until 2011, she said, did San Francisco police officers have official email.

"And we're talking about cyber security," Harris said. "There's an incredible disconnect."

Harris also urged law enforcement leaders to pull together separate narcotics, vice and gang units to share information to fight a growing human trafficking problem.

Loud applause greeted Harris' announcement that she'll appeal a Feb. 13 federal court ruling loosening restrictions on carrying concealed guns. In a 2-1 decision the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal struck down a San Diego County rule requiring applicants to document their need to carry a concealed weapon. Harris said the ruling would limit existing state law that allows police to use their experience and discretionary power to deny permits.

"The current law is absolutely appropriate," Harris said.

©2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)