At a cyber security forum sponsored by the Atlantic and Government Executive media organizations, visitors detected a decided shift in U.S. intelligence policy. Where the community had longed focused on keeping out unwanted intruders, the new assumption was that these efforts would eventually fail. And the new focus appears to be on minimizing the damage when they do fail. The director of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) Information Assurance Directorate, Debora Plunkett, addressed reports, stating:
There's no such thing as 'secure' any more. The most sophisticated adversaries are going to go unnoticed on our networks. We have to build our systems on the assumption that adversaries will get in. We have to, again, assume that all the components of our system are not safe, and make sure we're adjusting accordingly.
Mike McConnell, a retired Navy vice admiral and former NSA chief from 1992 to 1996 concurred, stating, "[There is not a major computer system of consequence] that is not penetrated by some adversary that allows the adversary, the outsider, to bleed all the information at will." Many might suspect the source of the policy shift is the recent leak by a disgruntled Army specialist, Bradley Manning, who spilled hundreds of thousands of classified documents to a foreign news site run by a self-proclaimed anarchist. While the damaging effects of that incident certainly played a role, it is far from the only reason for the shift. The U.S. has been under increasing attack digitally from foreign intelligence agencies, including China and North Korea. Foreign spies have infiltrated defense contractors, and retrieved information from lost U.S. government hardware. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, in the September/October issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, estimated that at least 100 foreign intelligence agencies are trying, night and day, to hack into U.S. government systems. He says that many of these agencies have the sophistication to succeed, at least some of the time, in their plots. For the NSA, which is tasked both with intercepting foreign communications and protecting those of our nation, the shift in mentality is crucial. The agency indicates that it has transitioned from trying merely to stop intruders from entering systems to limiting and monitoring access when such intruders do get in. If the recent forum was any indication, the U.S. intelligence agencies have conceded that hostile parties will likely establish beachheads on crucial systems in the coming decades of cyberwarfare. The key battle will be to prevent them from moving inland and capturing valuable documents or messages.