FIREEYE CYBER DEFENSE SUMMIT -- Washington, D.C. -- General Colin Powell says he doesn't claim to be a cyber security expert, but the retired Army general, former Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offered some sage advice to attendees here yesterday.
"You guys are the cyber industrial complex," he said in a keynote address. Powell recommended that organizations "triage" the onslaught of hacking threats.
"So understand what is the most important thing to protect at all costs, and who are the most dangerous people out there trying to get in, who are less dangerous, and who … is a problem but not at the heart of most of the dangers," Powell said.
He says something like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's unclassified system being compromised, for example, obviously isn't as big of a deal as the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) massive breach. And any breaches that infiltrate the military chain of command indeed would fall into the "dangerous" category.
"Do all you can to detect something is going wrong and jump on it before it explodes in your face," he said. Of course, there's no way to avoid any risk, he said. "You have to accept a little risk in life."
Powell also delicately waded into the controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for working from home. "I don't think it's much of a problem, frankly," said Powell of the email issue.
He said while as Secretary of State he used his personal account in his office and at home, he did not use a private server for that correspondence. Powell said about six months ago when word of Clinton's email server got out, he received inquiries from the agency asking whether during his tenure as Secretary he had removed any data or installed a server in his basement. "I took nothing out," he said.
State Department officials asked him if he had taken any data or flash drives of data upon leaving his post, which he did not, he said. "'Anything in your basement?'" he said, deadpanning the query by officials. "'No, wanna take a look?'"
Powell also shared an anecdote about how when as chair of the Joint Chiefs he alerted Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of President George H. Bush's orders for the US's military action in Operation Desert Storm. The two generals typically would communicate via a point-to-point secured phone line. "But when I wanted to make sure I could send something in writing to Norm in the most secure way possible and that was totally unavailable to anyone else … [it] was by fax," Powell said. That's how he communicated Bush's orders to Schwarzkopf.
Specifically, it was an encrypted fax line between the two generals' fax machines that sat in private offices far from anyone else's eyes. "It worked. Nobody ever broke into that system," he said.