Cyberterrorism could be the most devastating weapon of mass destruction yet and could cripple the U.S. economy, former CIA Director Robert Gates said at a terrorism conference Saturday.
Gates, who became Texas A&M University's president in 2002 about a decade after he left the CIA, cited as an example the "love bug" virus that overwhelmed computer systems around the world in 2000.
"When a teenage hacker in the Philippines overnight can wreak $10 billion in damage to the U.S. economy by implanting a virus, imagine what a sophisticated, well-funded effort to attack the computer base of our economy could accomplish," said Gates, addressing the two-day conference at Rice University.
Even before 2000, the United States seemed an easy cyberterrorism target, Gates said.
He said the CIA and National Security Agency conducted an exercise six years ago, assigning 50 computer specialists to see how hard it would be to shut down the nation's electric grid. It took only two days for the group to put itself in a position to do so, he said.
"All you have to do is look at what happened in the northeast when you had a tree fall on a line in rural Ohio," he said of a blackout that affected cities from Detroit to New York last year. "What I am talking about is bringing the U.S. economy to its knees."
The Internet is a prime target because the high-tech economy of the West can be seen as a threat in less-developed areas of the world, he said.
"We welcome rapid, even revolutionary change," he said. "For them, it is profoundly disturbing and even a desperate danger to their way of life."
Gates compared the war on terrorism to the Cold War and warned there is a long battle ahead.
"Terrorism is a global challenge that will take many forms and many years to defeat or contain," he said. "I think we can be certain that terrorists will hit America again."
Terrorism has evolved in the years since Gates served as CIA director during the early 1990s, he said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most terrorist groups were directed or sponsored by governments such as Iran, Iraq, Libya or Syria, he said. That made it easier to gather intelligence.
"Because they were trying to bring attention to a cause and to win support, they tended to limit the scale of their violence and the number of innocent lives they were prepared to take," he said. "This is obviously no longer the case."
Now terrorists are motivated by religion and are profoundly revolutionary, he said.
"As loathsome as bin Laden and his henchmen are, there is a method to their madness," Gates said. "The primary reason bin Laden attacked the United States three years ago is that dislike and even hatred of the United States is the only point of agreement that cuts across religious, secular and national divisions throughout the Arab Middle East."