WASHINGTON D.C. -- The nation's top intelligence official is warning that cyber attacks could cripple America's infrastructure and economy for months and now pose the most dangerous and immediate threat to the United States.
James Clapper, head of national intelligence, told a Senate hearing that "it was hard to overemphasize the significance of the threat," which now tops threats from Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks as well as North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
"The seriousness and diversity of the threats this country faces in the cyber domain are increasing on a daily basis and from my prospective I think this is one of the real national security challenges that we face," said CIA Director John Brennan.
Clapper said cyber attacks on U.S. government, business and critical infrastructure are becoming more frequent and more complicated to detect and stop. But, he said, there is only a remote chance that an attack in the next two years would result in long-term disruptions of services, such as a regional power outage.
The attacks are coming from cyber criminals as well as countries like Iran, Russia and China, who have the money, people and know how to get inside.
The head of the Public Utility Commission of Ohio told Channel 3 News in October that cyber criminals are routinely using the Internet to infiltrate power companies here, trying to take control of their operations.
"They're looking for system vulnerabilities, whether that's for the ability to affect power production, or take down the grid," said Todd Snitchler.
A station found that in the last two years, nine power companies reported cyber attacks they considered large enough to report to the federal government.
If they get in, hackers can send generators out of control and cause a black out, like the one that crippled Cleveland in 2003 -- except that it could last for months.
"The economic costs are huge and the restoration process is also very slow," said Ken Loparo of Case Western Reserve University.