It was bound to happen. The Senate fumbles and the House proffers only magical solutions for cybersecurity. The task of improving cybersecurity reverts to the executive branch, but the Department of Homeland Security does not inspire confidence. So the Department of Defense is given a larger role in protecting cyberspace — a responsibility that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta finally claimed in an important speech he delivered Oct. 11, “Defending the Nation from Cyber Attack.”
Panetta may have said that the Pentagon will only play a “supporting role,” but make no mistake: When it comes to cybersecurity, the center of action just shifted.
Given the feeble state of U.S. cyberdefenses, an astute antagonist could use cyberattacks to disrupt critical services and information. This is a standard military doctrine for America’s likely opponents. An expanded role for the Defense Department makes sense when the United States is so vulnerable — not only from sophisticated opponents but, surprisingly, from less advanced countries that may be more aggressive and less able to calculate risk.
The driver for immediate action is Iran. “Iran has also undertaken a concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage,” Panetta said. His speech laid the dots alongside each other without connecting them, but many sources in and out of government suggest that Iran was likely responsible for the disruptive attacks on Aramco and RasGas that the secretary mentioned. Iran may also have been behind recent denial-of-service attacks against U.S. banks. Iran has discovered a new way to harass much sooner than expected, and the United States is ill-prepared to deal with it.
The specifics of Iranian involvement are murky, but there is a general consensus that Tehran was either witting or supportive of the attacks. Iran has been working to acquire cyberattack capabilities for years — well before Stuxnet — and those who believe that the allegations of Iranian involvement are true do not believe the recent attacks were in retaliation for that piece of malware, which disrupted Iran’s centrifuges. If anything, some speculate they were a reaction to the new U.S. sanctions.
A more active Iran creates a new layer of problems in cyberspace that the United States cannot wait for Congress to address. An initial problem is how to credibly signal to Iran to refrain from further attacks. Panetta’s speech was an attempt to do so. There is a message for Iran that, while indirect, is unlikely to miss.
This is not “cyberdeterrence,” a term that makes little sense. The United States has one of the world’s most powerful cyberforces, and it did not deter Iran, nor can it deter espionage and crime. Deterrence doesn’t work because the United States can’t make a credible threat.
Against Iran, what would it be? More sanctions? A naval blockade? An airstrike? Even if the United States made these threats, Iran would be unlikely to assess them as credible. The Iranians know U.S. cybercapabilities better perhaps than any other country, and the threat of cyber-retaliation appears not to have frightened them. What Panetta is offering is not deterrence but prevention and preemption.
Panetta laid out a number of steps to harden defenses. Investing in new technology is a traditional American solution to defense problems. The secretary’s most significant remark about new technology is that “we’re seeing the returns on that investment” in the form of better attribution. Anonymity will offer less protection to attackers and may make some reconsider an attack. If nothing else, better attribution offers improved targeting.
More importantly, Panetta defined an active role for the Defense Department in cyberdefense, something that has been under discussion since 2009. An early question asked was, if NORAD can defend U.S. airspace, why can’t Cyber Command defend cyberspace. The answer is to use the National Security Agency’s unparalleled signals-intelligence capabilities and relationships to intercept incoming malicious traffic and define when and where it is legal for the agency to do so. The National Security Agency (NSA), with the right authorities, could block many future attacks.
A greater defensive role for the Defense Department is a good idea and a key element of any cybersecurity strategy, but there are obvious problems. Say “NSA” to privacy advocates, and they scream. To intercept malicious traffic from Iran or other opponents, you need to monitor all incoming traffic. Remember that we are ultimately talking about streams of ones and zeros, the code transferred among machines and only translated into human languages at the end. It is possible to screen these ones and zeros to look for patterns that indicate an attack without ever looking at content, but some doubt the NSA would be able to resist temptation. An expanded role for the Defense Department also requires expanded privacy protections.
The Defense Department’s new role also requires defining the space for action. Forget the dot-com mythology about cyberspace having no borders. Cyberspace depends on a physical infrastructure of computers and fiber, and this physical infrastructure is located on national territory or subject to national jurisdiction. Cyberspace is a hierarchy of networks, at the top of which a small number of companies carry the bulk of global traffic over the Internet “backbone.” International traffic, including attacks, enters the United States over this “backbone.” The backbone is a choke point, relatively easy to defend, and something that the NSA is already intimately familiar with (as are the other major powers that engage in signals intelligence). Sit at the boundary of the backbone and U.S. jurisdiction, monitor and intercept malware, and attacks can be blocked. An analogy is that the Navy defends the ocean approaches (pace forward deployment) but not the inland waterways.
But how far down the Internet’s spine should the Defense Department go? Should it also monitor the networks of large corporations or Internet service providers? Should it be able to go onto consumer devices when they are infected? The precedent in the United States is for military or intelligence agencies to perform domestic security functions only in a crisis, not routinely. Panetta makes clear that the Defense Department does not envision playing this role.
What he does envision is something that might be called preemption, using new rules of engagement for Cyber Command. He says, “We won’t succeed in preventing a cyberattack through improved defenses alone. If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us to defend this nation when directed by the president.” The United States, using national technical means, often has advance knowledge of an opponent’s plans, intentions and capabilities for cyberattack. Panetta seems to be saying that when an attack appears imminent, the president can direct the Defense Department to strike first. If it were a precise attack that avoided collateral damage, the political risk of striking another country could be manageable. There would still be risk of creating a wider conflict, and this, as the speech makes clear, is a decision only the president should make.
An active defensive role for the military is one of the three key elements needed for effective cybersecurity. The second is better protection for consumers. Last summer, the Federal Communications Commission began a program with major service providers to block or clean malware from their customers’ computers. The third missing piece in a comprehensive defense is protection of critical infrastructure. Panetta says members of Barack Obama’s administration “are considering” an executive order on cybersecurity. The drafts of this order are not public, but would likely take much of Section 104 of the bill put forward by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine — which failed to pass this summer but which would have implemented protections for critical infrastructure — and instead implement it under existing authorities.
The defense secretary said that there is no substitute for legislation and that Congress has a responsibility to act, but few expect to see this anytime soon. With a dysfunctional Congress unable to provide authorities for better cybersecurity, an executive order that mandates security at selected critical infrastructure may be the best the country can do. There are tensions within the Obama administration over Internet orthodoxies, but if the White House can manage to issue a credible order on critical infrastructure (not voluntary, and not dependent on imaginary incentives) to complement protections from Internet service providers and a larger role for the Pentagon, it will have done much of what needs to be done to begin building an adequate cyberdefense.