WASHINGTON — Calling protection of government and private computer and communications networks "one of the most serious . . . security challenges we face," President Obama on Friday said he would appoint a White House advisor to oversee a national effort to improve cyber-security throughout the U.S.
The president noted that millions of Americans already had been victimized by computer tampering and that his own campaign computers had been breached by hackers between August and October. Although none of the campaign's financial files was compromised, Obama said Friday, the campaign had to hire private security advisors.
The government will not dictate security measures for private industry, the president said, but will work with business in coordinating security.
"From now on, our digital infrastructure -- the networks and computers we depend on every day -- will be treated as they should be: as a strategic national asset," Obama said in an East Room address. "Protecting this infrastructure will be a national security priority."
Obama on Friday did not address proposals being discussed by Defense Department officials to set up a separate military command to deal with threats to U.S. computer systems from other countries or foreign organizations and to marshal potential offensive cyber-warfare capabilities to disable other nations' systems. That function now is overseen by the military's Strategic Command, which is in charge of U.S. missile defense and nuclear operations.
Senior military leaders had briefed President George W. Bush in late November on a widespread attack on Defense Department computers that may have originated in Russia. Officials said the attacks hit networks within the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and affected computers in combat zones. They penetrated at least one highly classified network.
A review by the White House National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council of potential network vulnerabilities, which was released Friday, called for more coordination among the federal, state and local governments, the private sector, and "key U.S. allies" to protect computer networks.
Experts said the White House initiative represented only the first steps.
"It's the beginning, not the end, of a process," said Martin Libicki, a senior management scientist at the Rand Corp. He is watching to see what size budget the White House attaches to the initiative, as well as "the clout of the person they put in charge."
The new White House report "does not show a country ready for war and law enforcement in cyberspace," said John Wheeler, who served as special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force from 2005 to 2009 and mobilized an Air Force cyber-command.
"The good news is that the language used is 21st century language, cyberspace language," he said. "So it gets everybody's minds thinking in the new directions and dimensions of cyberspace and leaves old 20th century templates behind. . . . The thing is, we want to avoid a cyber-Pearl Harbor."
It was reported in November that the presidential campaign computers of Obama and Republican rival Sen. John McCain had been breached by hackers, apparently from China, who downloaded information.
Obama said that hackers had gained access to "a range" of files, including policy papers and travel plans, but that donors' personal information was not compromised.