The PJ Tatler

Another Day, Another Leak: Obama Wants Cyberwar Targets

I’m almost starting to feel a little sorry for Obama. He’s starting to look like the Dutch boy who sticks his finger in the dyke — except in this case, he doesn’t have enough fingers to plug all the holes.

The leaks involving national security are coming one after another, exposing the soft underbelly of U.S. intelligence and informing our enemies — and potential enemies — of our plans.

The latest leak comes to us via the Guardian newspaper — the same outfit that broke the NSA phone records story. As with the NSA story, the author is Glenn Greenwald — a guy who appears to have a direct conduit into the deepest, most secretive recessses of the American government.

The potential damage caused by this leak is considerable. It involves the president’s order for our intelligence agencies to come up with targets in a potential cyberwar.

Barack Obama has ordered his senior national security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks, a top secret presidential directive obtained by the Guardian reveals.

The 18-page Presidential Policy Directive 20, issued in October last year but never published, states that what it calls 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”.

It says 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 directive also contemplates the possible use of cyber actions inside the US, though it specifies that no such domestic operations can be conducted without the prior order of the president, except in cases of emergency.

The aim of the document was “to put in place tools and a framework to enable government to make decisions” on cyber actions, a senior administration official told the Guardian.

The administration published some declassified talking points from the directive in January 2013, but those did not mention the stepping up of America’s offensive capability and the drawing up of a target list.

Obama’s move to establish a potentially aggressive cyber warfare doctrine will heighten fears over the increasing militarization of the internet.

The directive’s publication comes as the president plans to confront his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a summit in California on Friday over alleged Chinese attacks on western targets.

It may be prudent and wise to be proactive about fighting a cyberwar by choosing targets ahead of time. But whom is Obama going to go to war with in the U.S.? I suppose the cybergeeks could come up with a scenario where the federal government would target domestic enemies, but at the moment, the only thing that comes to mind is attacking the computer of a terrorist whose operation is imminent. How plausible is that?

Plausible or not, what safeguards are in place so that the administration can’t go after their political enemies? As with the other programs that have been leaked, it appears that safeguarding our privacy is inadequate.

We’re already involved in a limited cyberwar; Russian and other international mobsters, China, Russia — U.S. systems have been under attack from those groups as well as others.

But a cyberwar between nation states could quickly escalate as each side tries to take out the defenses of the other. Hopefully, Obama’s secret order will allow us to stay a step ahead in any conflict and protect our vital system from disruption or destruction.