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China cyberwar topic raised in Republican presidential debate

At last week’s Black Hat 2011 conference, the Central Intelligence Agency’s former director of operations, Cofer Black, made the claim that the security community has a unique opportunity to influence and educate government decision makers about cybersecurity because awareness of the issue among power players in Washington has never been higher.

Proof of Black’s point has perhaps never been more evident than it was Thursday night during the Republican presidential debate. During the lively two-hour debate, which aired on Fox News Channel, moderator Bret Baier of FNC asked presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and former ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, whether he would consider cyberattacks acts of war.

In his question, Baier seemed to reference Operation Shady RAT, the McAfee Inc. research effort revealed last week that led to the identification of 72 compromised, intruded parties, all relevant to the national security posture of the U.S. or other nations, broken down into 32 unique organization categories in 14 different countries over a five-year period. While McAfee’s report stops short of naming China as the perpetrator or addressing the China cyberwar issue specifically, experts believe China to be the source behind the attacks, which involved the theft of closely guarded and classified national secrets, negotiation plans and exploration details for new oil and gas field auctions, SCADA configurations, design schematics and numerous other pieces of sensitive information. Of course speculation in the industry has been rampant for years that China has been behind numerous other cyberattacks.

“Absolutely,” Huntsman said in response to whether a cyberattack should be considered an act of war. “This is the new warfield.” He added that the U.S. should use the cyberespionage issue as not only an economic development tool, but also a national security tool to improve early warning capabilities, safeguards and countermeasures.

“We need a strategic dialogue at the highest levels between the United States and China. That is not happening,” Huntsman said. “This is a relationship – the United States and China – we are both on the world stage. As far as you can see into the 21st century, we are going to have to deal with the Chinese. We better get it right.”

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