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Cyberattacks a top national security concern, GOP candidates say

Perry, Cain and Gingrich raise issue in Tuesday night's GOP debate

Three Republican presidential candidates at Tuesday's CNN-sponsored GOP debate said that cyberattacks pose an emerging national security threat to the United States.

In closing comments during the debate, GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, said that he views cyberattacks as one of three major security threats the U.S. is currently unprepared to deal with.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- and even today -- the biggest threat to the U.S is the use of a weapon of mass destruction in an American city, Gingrich said. "The second is an electromagnetic pulse attack, which would literally destroy the country's capacity to function," and the third is a cyberattack.

Herman Cain noted that as a former ballistics analyst and computer scientist, he also sees cyberattacks as a national security threat. "That's something that we do not talk enough about, and I happen to believe that that is a national security area that we do need to be concerned about."

Both Cain and Gingrich were responding to a question posed by Marc Thiessen, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who asked the GOP candidates to identify what they see as unexpected security threats of the future.

During the 2000 Presidential debates, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was never asked about the threat from Al Qaida, though the battle with that group dominated his presidency, Thiessen said. "What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about, either here or in any of the debates so far?" he asked.

The third Republican candidate to raise cybersecurity as an issue in response to the question was current Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In comments stating his belief that China was destined for the "ash heap" of history, Perry said that the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) involvement with cybersecurity is a major issue that the U.S. has to deal with now.

Later, his press office issued a statement saying that Perry viewed cyberattacks as an emerging threat to the nation. "As president, he will view them as seriously as a physical attack," the statement said. "Cyber attacks could target our military, important utilities, and the countless computer systems upon which our economy depends."

The statement advocated the need for both defensive and offensive cyber capabilities so that China and others who launch cyberattacks against the U.S. know there will be repercussions.

The comments by the GOP hopefuls suggest that cybersecurity issues will be a major topic for discussion in the upcoming 2012 presidential election. Currently, Congress is considering more than a dozen pieces of cybersecurity legislation and there is a growing awareness in Washington about the need for a strong national policy for dealing with emerging threats.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

Read more about cybercrime and hacking in Computerworld's Cybercrime and Hacking Topic Center.

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