Hayden: Pro-Syrian hacker group working with Iran

The pro-Syrian hacker group, dubbed the "Syrian Electronic Army" is likely working in conjunction with or directly for Iranian military and intelligence on cyber warfare operations. 

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The group, which has pledged allegiance with embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, "is an extension of the Iranian state," former CIA and National Security Agency chief Gen. Michael Hayden said during a Thursday speech in Washington. 

The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has previously claimed credit for other hacks of media companies, including sending a false message from The Associated Press's Twitter account earlier this year about an explosion at the White House. The message briefly caused stock prices to tumble.

Most recently, SEA hackers hit the websites of The New York Times, Twitter and The Huffington Post's U.K. site in August. 

Groups like the SEA and other "loosely affiliated" groups launching attacks in cyberspace pose a growing problem to U.S.-led efforts to defend critical defense and national security infrastructures in the government and civilian world. 

Straddling the line between a state-backed cyber warfare outfit and an organized criminal organization, the flexibility the SEA and others have to ramp up the number and type of cyberattacks at a moment's notice is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. and its allies. 

Syrian Electronic Army hackers can go from disinformation and harassment cyber operations to outright denials of service or other, more damaging types of attacks at the drop of a hat, Kevin Mandia, CEO of cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said during the same speech.

The Syrian hacker group was able to gain access to a vast list of email addresses for a slew of top commanders in the Syrian opposition by hacking into the networks of private organizations backing the rebels, according to Mandia. 

Aside from the SEA operations, Mandia's company was the first to disclose the existence of an elite cyber warfare unit run by the Chinese military in March. 

That said, groups like the SEA and others could easily train their sights on targets inside the United States or against American allies, Hayden and Mandia said. 

On Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey says the United States is "vulnerable" to a mass cyberattack from near-peer adversaries, such as China and Iran. 

The four-star general was hesitant to call the U.S. cybersecurity situation a "crisis" during a speech in Washington this week. 

However, "We are vulnerable, make no mistake about it," Dempsey said, according to The Wall Street Journal.