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Is a Crippling American Cyberattack Really on the Way?

Photo by THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/GettyImages.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has a stark new message about cyberterrorism: Hacker attacks that could destroy our power grid and transportation networks aren’t the stuff of sci-fi movies and dystopian novels anymore. They could happen at any time.

Speaking at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York, Panetta warned of what he called a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that could come from China, Iran, or rogue extremist groups. He acknowledged for the first time that a malware attack last summer on the world’s largest oil producer in Saudi Arabia destroyed 30,000 computers, and said he hoped his speech would be a “clarion call” for America to take more action to combat cyber threats.

Some experts accused Panetta of overheated language aimed at Congress, which has failed to a pass a bill that would require stricter security at places like power plants. But Panetta rejected that notion, telling Time magazine after the speech, “The whole point of this is that we simply don’t just sit back and wait for a goddamn crisis to happen. In this country we tend to do that.”