Panetta: US cyber security threat a 'pre-9/11 moment'

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta listens as he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (out of frame) conduct a Pentagon press conference September 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. Panetta slammed Hamid Karzai this week over his comments about the US military presence in Afghanistan.
Paul J. Richards

US defense chief Leon Panetta described the cyber threat currently facing America as a "pre-9/11 moment," telling business leaders in New York City late Thursday that they need to coordinate their efforts in order to prevent another similar tragedy, according to CNN

The warning came days after the White House acknowledged that US leadership had been targeted in a major cyber attack. 

“We know that foreign cyber actors are probing America’s critical infrastructure networks,” Panetta said, according to the Wall Street Journal. These people are trying to gain control over transit systems as well as chemical and electricity plants, he said, adding that the government has evidence of "specific instances" of such security breaks. 

“We also know they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack those systems and cause panic, destruction and even loss of life," the defense chief warned, reported CNN

More from GlobalPost: White House confirms cyber attack

The US defense department is beefing up its efforts to fight off such attacks, including the publication of official rules of engagement for any cyber conflicts Panetta said “would rise under international law to the level of armed attack," according to CNN

“If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action to defend the nation when directed by the president,” added the defense secretary, reported CNN

Panetta said the number of such attacks has been expanding rapidly, and warned the private sector that they are increasingly at risk. He described an August attack on 30,000 computers in Saudi Arabia as "the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date," warning there is plenty more where that came from. The WSJ has the numbers: 

"Cyber attacks against companies are on the rise. In 2012, organizations have experienced an average of 102 successful attacks per week, compared to 72 attacks per week in 2011 and 50 attacks in 2010, according to the new 2012 Cost of Cyber Crime Study from the Ponemon Institute and H-P. The average annualized cost of cybercrime to U.S. organizations is now $8.9 million, up 6 percent from last year."