NEW YORK — In the fall of 2012, President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, arrived to Manhattan’s west side to deliver an unprecedented speech about cyber warfare.
Aboard the USS Intrepid, the legendary World War II aircraft carrier now functioning as a museum along the banks of the Hudson River, Panetta devoted his entire speech to a topic seldom discussed in public by such a senior government official, let alone a member of the president’s Cabinet.
The US was on the verge of a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” Panetta warned.
Attackers could target and shut down power plants, water treatment facilities, and gas pipelines that would “cause physical destruction and the loss of life. It would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”
Panetta’s words were stretched for emphasis and enunciated with such clarity that it was impossible to overlook what he was saying:
A cyber Pearl Harbor.
The invocation of one of the deadliest attacks ever on American soil would surely raise some eyebrows. But the tides of war were changing, and Panetta wanted the country to know about it in no uncertain terms.
The speech struck a chord with the crowd of mostly New York City business executives and national security professionals.
Among them, sitting at a far-off table in the corner of the room, was a little-known cybersecurity specialist named Geoff Brown.