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article imageOp-Ed: Obama wants target list for U.S. offensive cyber-attack program

By Ken Hanly     Jun 8, 2013 in Politics
Washington - President Obama has directed his national security and intelligence officials to create a list of potential US targets for US cyber-attacks according to a top secret document obtained by the UK paper, the Guardian.
While complaining about attacks by China and others on US government and corporate computers, Obama is at the same time drawing up plans for targeting others through its own operations. The US in collaboration with Israel and possibly Germany has already been involved in cyberwarfare with Iran, infecting computers involved in Iran's nuclear program with the virus Stuxnet: "US-based Mandiant Internet security firm confirmed that US government “cyberwarriors” have collaborated with the Israeli regime to disrupt Iran’s nuclear energy program by attempting to infect its computer networks. " In response, Iran is developing its own cyberwarfare army to attack US interests.
The eighteen page Presidential Policy Directive, was issued last October. Of course, it has never been published. The directive states the Offensive Cyber Effects Operations (OCEO) "can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging". The document claims that the government will "identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power".
The attacks could even happen domestically but only in an emergency or if specifically directed by the president. In January of this year, the Obama administration did publish a few declassified talking points lifted from the directive. The Guardian revelation will increase fears of the militarization of the Internet.
At present Obama is meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. No doubt cyber warfare will be high on the list of issues to be discussed. The US has accused China or Chinese operatives as launching numerous cyber attacks on western targets. China had responded to criticism by saying that it had "mountains of data" of US cyber-attacks that were as serious as those charged against China. An intelligence source with extensive knowledge of NSA's system claims that US charges against China are quite hypocritical in that the US had already participated in many operations that hack into foreign computer systems for information. The source told the Guardian: : "We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world."
While the document does include various caveats and precautions one wonders who will see that they will actually be observed. Cyber-attacks should conform to US and international law and any that are likely to result in significant consequences should require presidential approval. I just wonder how most cyber-attacks would be expected to conform to international law. The legality of the Stuxnet attack is surely dubious to put it mildly.
Note that the directive does not speak of these cyber-attacks as defensive or retaliatory but simply as advancing "US national objectives around the world". This is extremely broad. Many analysts worry that cyber-attacks could lead to actual military confrontation. Sean Lawson, of the University of Utah, claims: "When militarist cyber rhetoric results in use of offensive cyber attack it is likely that those attacks will escalate into physical, kinetic uses of force."
The directive says that the US expressly reserves the right to use cyber attacks in foreign countries without consent of the country where the attack will happen. As with drone strikes the justification is "anticipatory action taken against imminent threats". The US seems to define an "imminent threat" as anything that the US wants to attack. When the directive was first issued, the Electronic Privacy Information Center tried to obtain the report under the Freedom of Information Act. The NSA simply refused to to release the document on the grounds it was classified.
No doubt we will hear about all this from Obama. He will staunchly defend the program and then say Americans should have a dialogue on the program. Of course the public will know about the program what Obama chooses to tell them, except of course for leaks. Obama will tell us that leaks endanger national security and ought to be uncovered and the culprit severely punished. To have a dialogue with the other side actually knowing what is going on is against the national interest. As can be seen on the enclosed video, past government operatives and others are waiting to cash in on the cyber-terror fear that is creating a convenient and profitable boom for cyber-security firms.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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