Collateral Damage in Cyberwar

Monday, June 4th 2012

There has been a war going on for quite some time, but it's one that has been conducted largely out of sight. This is the war being fought on the digital front: cyber-spying, cyber-theft, and cyber-sabotage.

Up until last week, the U.S. has been engaging in this war fairly discreetly. Most of the news reporting about it has focused on how citizens in our country have been the target of enemy probes, and the government’s public pronouncements have mostly been about the need for all of us to protect our personal information and our national critical infrastructure.

One reason for the official discretion is that we don’t like to let our adversaries know when they’ve found a vulnerable spot. But another reason is that we don’t want to brag when we’ve hit one of theirs, since uncertainty is also a weapon in this war. Yet the fact is, the people who are responsible for protecting our nation would be irresponsible if they weren't also strengthening our offensive capabilities – and you can be sure that, on that front, they haven’t been irresponsible.

Until last week.

The detailed report in The New York Times about the U.S. effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear development program was an unprecedented and profoundly damaging admission that America has launched the equivalent of an intercontinental ballistic missile of computer code at another country. Even worse, this revelation is probably going to do more long-term damage to U.S. interests than to Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons.

For those whose job is promoting, supporting, and explaining the interests of the United States – those on the frontlines of U.S. public diplomacy – what do you say now if some other country starts waging cyberwar against its enemies (or, for that matter, us)? “We can do it, but you can’t”?

What’s most exasperating is that our veil of secrecy was thrown open not for any good strategic reason but for simple domestic politics. How else to explain not only the general thrust of the Times story but quotes like these:

"From his first days in office, (President Obama) was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian program - the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision," a senior administration official said. "And it's safe to say that whatever other activity might have been under way was no exception to that rule."

As critic Charles Krauthammer said of a previous story that described how the president presided over the selection of drone attack targets: “This was no leak. This was a White House press release.”

There’s no denying that the age of cyberwar is upon us. Failing to report on it will not stop it. But the administration officials who have been entrusted with guarding our nation’s secrets would have served us better by learning a lesson from the Israelis about the value of strategic ambiguity (in their case, about their widely-recognized but never-admitted nuclear weapons capability). Or they could have just followed the advice of President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Whatever the case, it’s too late now. The largely secret world of cyberwarfare is now a public one, and the job of our diplomats is going to get a lot harder whenever they’re asked about it. And they will be.

David S. Jackson

David Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets.

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Author: David S Jackson

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