In November 1997 I was asked to testify at a Senate hearing concerning the growing worry about cybersecurity. At the time, I was deputy secretary of the Defense Department, and that hearing followed an unexplained electricity blackout in San Francisco that left 125,000 people in the dark for a day. Fears were rising that malicious hackers had somehow taken down the grid. I warned the Senate that America was facing the prospect of an “electronic Pearl Harbor.”
The phrase became a touchstone in the long national argument over cybersecurity, for better or worse. I was not the author of the phrase. That honor goes to a dear friend of mine, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Tom Marsh, who had just led a national commission looking at cyber vulnerabilities. Tom came to my office to summarize the findings and used the Pearl Harbor metaphor.
I don’t regret using the Pearl Harbor analogy, but in retrospect it was a mistake to use the analogy when I did. We used the vocabulary of war, because that was what we do at the Defense Department. But for most Americans, war is the Pentagon’s business, not theirs. Ninety-nine percent of American cyberspace is in the private sector, and at the time, the war metaphor didn’t connect. In fact, it backfired: It earned me notoriety as a demon in progressive left, cyber-libertarian circles. But it didn’t mobilize the national awareness of the peril we were in.
The full piece in Politico can be read here. And here is a piece from 1997 documenting Hamre's comments on an electronic Pearl Harbor when he was at the Department of Defense.
Here is a recent Think Tank Watch piece on why reading think tank reports can actually harm your company. It notes that a number of think tanks have been victims of numerous cyber attacks.