(Newsroom America) -- In a blunt admission, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a group of business executives in New York City Thursday night that there has been a sudden uptick in cyber attacks against the U.S., and that hackers have managed to gain access to key systems that control critical infrastructure.
Panetta said the activity is raising concerns among the U.S. intelligence community that cyber attacks may be combined with other types of attacks to create the kind of panic and destruction like that seen during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, The Washington Guardian reported Friday.
"These attacks mark a significant escalation of the cyber threat. And they have renewed concerns about still more destructive scenarios that could unfold," Panetta said, according to the website. "For example, we know that foreign cyber actors are probing America’s critical infrastructure networks."
Continuing, Panetta said hackers "are targeting the computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants, and those that guide transportation throughout the country.
"We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems. We also know they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic, destruction, and even the loss of life," the defense chief said.
The website said that current and former U.S. officials believe Iran is behind at least some of the attacks, in particular hack attacks against the energy sectors of two Middle East allies of the U.S.
Panetta, while not accusing Iran directly, did single the Islamic republic out.
"Iran has also undertaken a concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage," he said, adding that the Obama administration is moving forward with its own cyber-security measures through executive action after reaching a stalemate with congressional Republicans and business allies.
"This is a pre-9/11 moment," Panetta said. "The attackers are plotting. Our systems will never be impenetrable, just like our physical defenses are not perfect. But more can be done to improve them. We need Congress, and we need all of you, to help in that effort."
The U.S. and Israel are believed to be behind cyber attacks earlier this year that targeted Iran's nuclear and energy infrastructure. Some analysts believe Iran, if it is indeed responsible for the increased cyber activity against U.S. targets, could be acting in a retaliatory manner.
© 2012 Newsroom America.