The U.S. government this week lifted the lid slightly on its mostly secret policies on cybersecurity and cyberthreats, as the Obama administration grapples with the growing problem of cyberwarfare attacks and computer-based spying.
First, it was confirmed for the first time in public at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies recently completed a major National Intelligence Estimate on cyberthreats.
Officials familiar with the classified report, a consensus of all spy agencies, said it highlights the growing threat posed by Chinese, Russian and Iranian cyberattacks against government and private networks. It also provides details on Beijing’s role in cyberattacks — accusations the Chinese government continues to deny.
Sen. Carl M. Levin, the committee chairman, said the estimate and two other government and private reports “all leave little doubt that China’s actions are a serious threat to our nation’s economic well-being and to our security.”
“It’s long past time when United States and our allies who are also being attacked in this way should be imposing costs and penalties on China for their behavior,” the Michigan Democrat said. “China’s massive campaign to steal technology, business practices, intellectual property and business strategies through cyberspace continues, and it continues relentlessly.”
Additionally, President Obama recently signed a classified presidential policy directive designed to resolve issues of blurred lines of authority among agencies dealing with cyberattacks and responses.
A White House official said the directive on cyberoperations was signed last year by the president.
The official declined to discuss all elements of the secret directive but said it “will establish principles and processes that can enable more effective planning, development and use of our capabilities.”
“It enables us to be flexible, while also exercising restraint in dealing with the threats we face,” the official said, adding that U.S. policy is to “undertake the least action necessary to mitigate threats.”
The directive also prioritizes network defense and law enforcement “as the preferred courses of action,” the official said.
At the Pentagon, another new development revealed this week was the creation through the interagency planning process of a set of emergency action procedures to be used in dealing with cyber crises, such as a major computer attack against electrical or financial networks.
That process is similar to those used for strategic nuclear operations as well as for missile-defense operations.
For the military, the Joint Staff also is close to issuing a document outlining a cyberwarfare doctrine that will define rules of engagement for the armed forces, such as when a cyberattack constitutes an act of war.
The new measures came as the head of the U.S. Cyber Command, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, on Tuesday provided new details of the command’s expansion plans. The command is setting up three major teams of cyberwarriors, including one devoted to offensive cyberattacks against foreign states and groups. It is also integrating cyberoperations into the military’s combatant commands in anticipation of conflicts involving digital strikes and counter strikes.
Said Mr. Levin of the new steps: “The fact that these foundational policy frameworks and planning actions are now just taking shape serves as a stark illustration of how immature and complex this warfare domain remains.”
Under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, Gen. Alexander was asked when a cyberattack from Russia or China on the U.S. electrical power grid would be viewed as an act of war.
The four-star general said the definition of a cyberact of war is being “ironed out.”
“First, I would look at the laws of armed conflict, the intent of the nation, what they’re doing,” he said. “I would say what we’re seeing today from those countries is essentially espionage, and theft of intellectual property is not an act of war.”
However, he said, “I think you’ve crossed the line” with a cyberattack intended to disrupt or destroy infrastructure. He declined to provide details in an open hearing.
New Asia policymaker
Obama administration officials tell Inside the Ring that the White House is quietly pushing its National Security Council staff director for Asian affairs, Danny Russel, to be nominated as the State Department replacement for Kurt Campbell, who retired last month from the key post of assistant secretary for East Asia.
Mr. Russel, a Foreign Service officer, is said to be an advocate of soft power and averse to hard power under the administration’s new Asia policy that Mr. Campbell played the key role in developing.
His views were captured during a briefing before President Obama’s visit to Asia in November.
“If 80 percent of life is just showing up, then I think this trip delivers the other 20 percent in terms of substance, in terms of getting things done, pushing the agenda forward, and driving toward progress and outcomes that directly benefit us — the U.S. and the people of the U.S. — but also the people in the countries in the Asia Pacific region,” he told reporters.
Also in the running for the key State post is Kathleen Stephens, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who also is a career Foreign Service officer. One U.S. official politely described Ms. Stephens as “not a strategic thinker.”
The Asia post at State is being closely watched by U.S. and foreign Asia specialists because it likely will signal the future for the new Asia pivot under Secretary of State John F. Kerry, whom aides say is less interested in pushing a shift to the Asia Pacific than promoting his personal top priority: climate change.
Pacom on threats
Speaking of climate change, U.S. Pacific Command leader Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III surprised many in the Pentagon and national security community with his comments last week that he regards climate change and resulting sea level rises as the greatest long-term challenge in the Asia Pacific.
The comments come amid growing fears in Asia over North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s large-scale military buildup, growing bellicosity and bullying of regional states in maritime disputes, including a standoff with key U.S. ally Japan.
Adm. Locklear told academics in Boston that climate change “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about,” The Boston Globe reported last week.
The four-star admiral — who in the past publicly declined to back defense-treaty ally Japan in its increasingly testy dispute with China over the Senkaku islands — said there is a real potential that nations in Asia would be displaced by rising sea levels in the near future.
A defense official said pro-China advocates in and out of government are pushing the climate-change priority because they are opposed to toughening U.S. security posture to deter an increasingly aggressive China. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others want the administration to use climate change in arguing for unrestricted engagements and as a rationale for not pressing China on its nuclear and conventional forces buildup, support for rogue states and missile- and nuclear-proliferation activities.
Pacific Command spokeswoman Lt. Theresa L. Donnelly said the headline on The Globe story was “slightly misleading” but that “climate change is a primary concern of Adm. Locklear but by no means exclusive in its importance.”
The commander is also concerned with regional territorial disputes, the North Korean threat and “actions in cyberspace,” she said.
Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center warned that the admiral’s comments on climate change in the face of real threats “may undermine confidence in U.S. leadership.”
“With North Korea threatening nuclear war against South Korea, and China threatening to invade the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands, our allies look to [the commander of U.S. Pacific Command] for evidence of immediate American concern and leadership, understanding that the White House is always preoccupied,” Mr. Fisher told Inside the Ring.
Asserting that climate change is the most serious regional threat also undermines the Pacific Command’s first mission to deter wars or win them, he added.
Former State Department official John Tkacik, an Asia specialist, said Adm. Locklear also appears to be misinformed.
“It is a bit puzzling that the commander of our forces in the Pacific seems so agitated about sea-level rises — especially in Kiribati — because he, of all people, should be well-versed in the latest Pacific oceanographic research.”
A 2010 study of sea levels in the Pacific Ocean nation showed that Kiribati’s three major islands actually increased in area by substantial percentages over the past 19 years.
“The U.S. Navy, of all organizations, must know that only 14 percent of the Pacific Islands surveyed showed any area loss at all due to sea level rises in the past 20 years, while the rest either experienced no change (43 percent) or expanded their surface areas (43 percent),” Mr. Tkacik said in an email.
Climate change may be a problem by 2100, but “there really is no evidence that sea-level rises in the Pacific will impact America’s national security, even in Admiral Locklear’s ‘long term’ — that is, before 2030,” he said.