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Foreign Policy Analysis
Why cyber warfare represents diplomatic territory

Why cyber warfare represents diplomatic territory


JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the weekend, The New York
Times reported on American military efforts to infiltrate the power grid of Russia, a
largely civilian target. As John Yang tells us, it’s a flash point
in an emerging, digital conflict. JOHN YANG: Judy, The Times reported that the
president and Congress have given the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, which is based at Fort Meade,
Maryland, the authority to conduct offensive operations without direct presidential approval. That means commanders there can operate more
freely, and, in theory, more nimbly. The intrusions into Russia’s electrical grid
are the latest reported example of U.S. military efforts on an increasingly crowded digital
battlefield. For more on this, we are joined by R.P. Eddy. He’s a former National Security Council official
and the founder of Ergo, an intelligence consulting firm. Mr. Eddy, thank you very much for joining
us. Can you give us some understanding or help
us understand the scope of U.S. offensive cyber-operations? R.P. EDDY, Former National Security Council
Staff Member: Well, U.S. Cyber Command, which is a part of the U.S. government, part of
the Department of Defense that’s intended to take our offensive-defensive cyber-operations,
is 10 years old actually this month. And it’s a massive undertaking, meaning that
this reporting, to me, isn’t shockingly newsworthy, because we have been working diligently, sending
billions of dollars to understand the vulnerability of our adversaries around the globe for a
decade at this point, at least. And before Cyber Command, of course, we were
doing this in other guises. JOHN YANG: And how important is Cyber Command
to U.S. military power? R.P. EDDY: Think about how disruptive the
use of cyberattacks against Facebook and other and other aspects of our cyber-domain were
in the 2016 elections. The way the world’s turning right now, we
live in an extraordinary, connected world. We don’t quite understand what would happen
if the power went off, but if you spend some time thinking about no water, no hospitals,
no ambulance, no traffic lights, what that all means, it means people dying. That’s a cyber-offensive capacity. The critical infrastructure of most nations
is controlled by things connected to the Internet or to computers. That’s a cyber-target or vulnerability. So I’d say the capacity to create deterrence
in the cyber-domain is extremely important for the United States right now as we try
to push deterrence around the globe. JOHN YANG: Is there a concern, or is there
a danger that what we view as deterrence, one side views as deterrence, the other side
could see as provocation? R.P. EDDY: Yes, I like the way you put that. So, one of the concerns about this entire
domain is that it’s still considered a secret, right? So all of our cyber-offensive or other nations’
cyber-offensive capacities, if they even exist, are considered a covert capacity, meaning
we’re not sitting down in the public and talking about them. While nuclear weapons and normal missiles
and other things are horrible weapons of war, we have treaties around them. We understand what is a proportional response,
what is not. We have not had those conversations as it
— when it comes to offensive cyber-activity. So the capacity of one nation to misunderstand
another, for one nation to think that a cyber-intrusion or a cyberattack means one thing, to them,
it means something much more aggressive or offensive, could happen. So there could be real room for miscommunication
here. JOHN YANG: And so, in other words, it sounds
like there are no sort of rules of the road here. It’s a little bit like the Wild West? R.P. EDDY: It is — the Wild West is a really
good analogy. There are no rules of the road. And, remember, we’re now talking about taking
attacks against noncombatants. So there are obviously rules of warfare about
hitting noncombatants. But in the world of the cyber-war, people
may not consider that to be a violation of the International Criminal Court or other
legal statutes that we have to follow inside the rules of warfare. So if I shut down the power grid in New York
City, that will lead to the death of people that are noncombatants, and that is an offensive
operation against noncombatants. And we haven’t had those conversations. So it is the Wild West. There’s not enough conversation on this. The norms haven’t been established. I would just say quickly, again, look back
at how puzzled we all were about the manipulation of Facebook and other social media during
the last election. The technology is far outpacing the diplomacy
and the conversations around these issues. JOHN YANG: And giving the authority to the
secretary defense, to the head of Cyber Command to carry these things out without direct presidential
approval, without direct presidential authority, is this a sign — I mean, is this a military
commander is now calling it an airstrike; it’s now just another weapon in the arsenal? R.P. EDDY: It is another weapon in the arsenal. And it’s one that we haven’t had real conversations
about, as we mentioned before. To activate potential implants or to take
advantage of cyber-vulnerabilities would be an offensive operation of war that is not
delegated right now down to individual commanders. So I would be shocked if the head of Cyber
Command believes right now he’s allowed to press a button and deploy cyber-weapons. I don’t think that’s where we are. JOHN YANG: And this all started — or at least
the people first may have become aware of Stuxnet, when the National Security Agency
launched this malware against the Iranian nuclear program, which got out, and is now
being used by others or had been used by others. Is this now moving into the Pentagon? Is this sort of another step, another sort
of Pandora’s box being kicked open? R.P. EDDY: So it’s not entirely clear yet
who was behind Stuxnet. And all the reporting that the United States
was on it is sort of non-verified reporting. But whoever did release Stuxnet put a very,
very powerful cyber-weapon out into the wild. And criminals and other nation states have
since taken that weapon and repurposed it for their own use. So, much like a drone being shot down in a
hostile country, American high-tech drone being shot down and being reprogrammed by
the hostile nation, such can some of these cyber-weapons be repurposed by people we’d
rather not have them, cyber-criminals or adversary nations. That’s another thing we have to make sure
we’re really thinking about when we catalogue the unintended consequences of different cyber-activities,
cyber-warfare activities. JOHN YANG: R.P. Eddy, a former National Security
Council official, thank you very much. R.P. EDDY: Thanks very much, John.

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