The United States government should build an infrastructure to aggressively defend government and private interests against cyber-attacks that threaten security and economic viability, a former national security adviser told a group at a Great Neck synagogue Sunday.

Richard A. Clarke, who served as the first-ever special adviser on cybersecurity, under President Bill Clinton and later for President George W. Bush, said attacks against American companies have become commonplace and created an uneven economic playing field.

"The single most effective thing we can do is we say, as a matter of national policy, that we are going to defend American companies who want to be defended and who are in critical industries, then build the capability to do that," Clarke said at Temple Emanuel Sunday during a lecture and question-and-answer session about cybersecurity and terrorism threats.

Clarke, who appeared as part of the synagogue's cultural arts lecture series, gained national attention after he criticized the Bush administration's decision to go to to war in Iraq and later apologized to victims' families during testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

At Sunday's event, Clarke cited the November 2014 alleged hack by the North Korean government of Sony Pictures Entertainment as proof that hackers can infiltrate and damage private entities. He said hackers could also "derail trains, blow up pipelines."

The Sony Pictures hack revealed embarrassing email correspondences among executives, allegedly in retribution for the release of "The Interview," a movie that mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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"Everything is connected to the Internet," said Clarke. "You could attack everything in our infrastructure."

The biggest threat to the United States right now, Clarke said, is "Chinese economic competition." Not because of their innovation, he said, but because the Chinese government is the "worst offender" in terms of "going into American companies and stealing our research."

"We can't win, if in addition to their low wages and all the other benefits they have, we are paying for their research. . . . Over time, that's not a sustainable position. They will beat us over time if they continue to do that and we continue to let them."