WASHINGTON - The US military could act pre-emptively if it detects an imminent threat of cyber attack, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, urging stronger action to bolster America's defenses against such plots.

In what was described by US officials as the first major policy speech on cybersecurity by a defense secretary, Panetta lamented under-investment by America's private sector and political gridlock in Washington that he said stymied cybersecurity legislation. He said a presidential executive order was being considered "while we wait for Congress to act."

Addressing a gathering of business leaders in New York, Panetta warned that unnamed foreign actors were targeting computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants and those that guide transportation.

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