By Glenn S. Gerstell
(Mr. Gerstell is the general counsel of the National Security Agency.)
The New York Times
Sept. 10, 2019
The National Security Operations Center occupies a large windowless room, bathed
in blue light, on the third floor of the National Security Agency’s headquarters
outside of Washington. For the past 46 years, around the clock without a single
interruption, a team of senior military and intelligence officials has staffed
this national security nerve center.
The center’s senior operations officer is surrounded by glowing high-definition
monitors showing information about things like Pentagon computer networks,
military and civilian air traffic in the Middle East and video feeds from drones
in Afghanistan. The officer is authorized to notify the president any time of
the day or night of a critical threat.
Just down a staircase outside the operations center is the Defense Special
Missile and Aeronautics Center, which keeps track of missile and satellite
launches by China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and other countries. If North Korea
was ever to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile toward Los Angeles,
those keeping watch might have half an hour or more between the time of
detection to the time the missile would land at the target. At least in theory,
that is enough time to alert the operations center two floors above and alert
the military to shoot down the missile.
But these early-warning centers have no ability to issue a warning to the
president that would stop a cyberattack that takes down a regional or national
power grid or to intercept a hypersonic cruise missile launched from Russia or
China. The cyberattack can be detected only upon occurrence, and the hypersonic
missile, only seconds or at best minutes before attack. And even if we could
detect a missile flying at low altitudes at 20 times the speed of sound, we have
no way of stopping it.