When All You Have Is a CyberHammer, You Have to Expect to Go to War against Nails

There are two things about this NYT article describing Obama’s new cyberwar policy that deserve note.

A secret legal review on the use of America’s growing arsenal of cyberweapons has concluded that President Obama has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad, according to officials involved in the review.

[snip]

The rules will be highly classified, just as those governing drone strikes have been closely held.

First, according to the WaPo, the government has conducted a search of any and all government officials who have had contact with the lead author of the story, David Sanger.

Investigators, they said, have conducted extensive analysis of the e-mail accounts and phone records of current and former government officials in a search for links to journalists.

Frankly, I think the WaPo is naively ignoring the real possibility, given the updates to DOJ’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, that DOJ has accessed Sanger’s email records directly.

Nevertheless, however they’ve gotten that information, the government now has a pretty good idea who speaks to David Sanger. Presumably, folks who talk to Sanger — particularly those privy to secret workings of the White House — are cognizant of this fact.

From that I assume it’s likely — though by no means certain — that the Administration is not that unhappy about having an article boasting about its aggressive cyberwar stance, even while noting that the details of it will be remain legally classified.

Meanwhile, I’m struck by this claim.

Mr. Obama is known to have approved the use of cyberweapons only once, early in his presidency, when he ordered an escalating series of cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

Sure, there’s only been the one attack (or rather the serial set of attacks) on Iran.

But I’m struck — particularly in the wake of DOJ’s filing making it clear they’re investigating WikiLeaks as a spy, while refusing to tell us what laws it is using to conduct that investigation — that there has been a rather notable cyberattack whose author we don’t know: the DDOS attacks on WikiLeaks as it first started to release the WikiLeaks cables, and then again last summer (a group called AntiLeaks claimed credit for the second one).

As Jack Goldsmith and Thomas Rid both point out, the Administration appears to be badly fumbling cyber defense (largely because the private sector doesn’t want to play along and the Administration isn’t prepared to make them), but they are very aggressively pursuing cyberoffense. Perhaps, as Goldsmith suggests, this leak to the journalist whose contacts are being monitored is intended to deter attacks on the US (though I’m not sure how a story in a newspaper that the Chinese have hacked is going to scare the Chinese from doing what they have been doing for years).

But if the US is so intent on bragging about its offensive capability, isn’t it time we learned the scope of that offensive capability? Shouldn’t we finally know whether the government took down a publisher’s website?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

6 replies
  1. Jason Leopold says:

    Re: “the government has conducted a search of any and all government officials who have had contact with the lead author of the story, David Sanger.”

    That’s exactly what I requested in my FOIA last year. ha!

  2. Roman Berry says:

    Time for everyone (not just journalists, but everyone) to move to encrypted email, VPN’s (virtual private networks) and something like zerobin (an encrypted pastebin with the option to set messages to “burn after reading”) and the like. We live in a surveillance state.

    I remember when the US pointed at old Soviet bloc surveillance states as an example of why our “free society” was better. Now, with surveillance and secret laws and secret proceedings and indefinite detention and citizen assassination where a secret meeting of the executive branch is supposed to pass for “due process” in the decision to kill without charge or trial, I bet some of the old East German Stasi officers wonder why the US ever pointed to them as bad guys. The Stasi had nothing on the current edition of “The Land of the Free.”

  3. eCAHNomics says:

    JMO but I think this is a preannouncement of FF domestic cyberattack wh will be blamed on Iran. The ePATRIOT act has already been written, according to what Richard Clarke has told his friends. (I don’t have a source for that. I did not see the original & I forget where I picked the snippet up, so take it fwiw.)

    I also think Aaron Swartz’s death is impt in this regard.

  4. orionATL says:

    it’s not hard to see where this is going.

    a little doj wordplay and julian assamge, aaron s, and organizations like anonymous, will be labelled as “enemy combatants” or “war criminals”.

    i would guess ammendment one rights of speech and assembly (on the internet) will be forced to cede dominance to our nation’s security needs.

    a sophisticated totalitarianism (“iron fist in velvet glove”) has been a slowly, quietly aborning in our nation since 2011.

    advantage osama.

  5. shekissesfrogs says:

    @Roman Berry: I was reading about the Romanian Securitate recently..

    Even though they stopped officially collecting dossiers on people, they didn’t do a purge of the government personnel. There was enough left behind in intelligence, or their crony children left in gov’t offices, that they were still able to get a hold of the information for business, bribes and threats. (Let’s not forget this when its time.) Romania still hasn’t recovered. It’s terribly corrupt, and liberalizing the economy made poverty endemic.

    I remember the stories in the news after the wall fell, and Reagan’s speeches about how about how terrible communism was, and that we should all be glad we don’t have to live under totalitarianism or godless communism.
    There is more than evolutionary path to get the same result.

    I wonder if this fortress/siege mentality is projecting the elites fear of losing their key cushy positions in the waning days of empire? Somewhere out there Nixon is fapping himself.

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