WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has called on national security leaders to develop destructive cyberwarfare capabilities that could be triggered with “little or no warning” against adversaries around the world, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
Presidential Policy Directive 20, issued to national security and intelligence officials in October, includes an array of procedures to ensure that cyber-attacks are lawful and minimize damage. But the directive indicates the government believes that cyber-attacks — known as “offensive cyber effects operations” (OCEO) — are becoming common and that cyberwar could be just around the corner.
“OCEO can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance U.S. 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,” the document said. “The United States government shall identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power.”
Specialists take it for granted that the United States and China are already engaged in a struggle in cyberspace.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently told troops: “Cyber is one of those quiet, deadly, insidious unknowns you can’t see. It’s in the ether — it’s not one big navy sailing into a port or one big army crossing a border or squadrons of fighter planes.
“This is a very difficult but real and dangerous threat. There is no higher priority for our country than this issue.”
The Post first reported about the existence of the directive in November. White House sources then said it was the most extensive effort to date to define the lines between offensive and defensive cyber-operations.
The Obama administration later released an unclassified overview of the directive’s highlights. “As we have already publicly acknowledged, last year the president signed a classified presidential directive relating to cyber-operations, updating a similar directive dating back to 2004,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Friday. She said the directive is part of a push to make cybersecurity a “top priority.”
“The cyberthreat has evolved, and we have new experiences to take into account,” Hayden said. “This directive establishes principles and processes for the use of cyber-operations so that cybertools are integrated with the full array of national security tools we have at our disposal.”
Hayden said the directive “provides a whole-of-government approach consistent with the values that we promote domestically and internationally. She said it is aimed at establishing “principles and processes that can enable more effective planning, development, and use of our capabilities.”
The top-secret 18-page document “provides a procedure for cybercollection operations that are reasonably likely to result in ‘significant consequences,’ ” also known in the national security world as “sensitive offensive cyber-operations.”
It also offers glimpses into a burgeoning military and intelligence world that has been blanketed by top secrecy. The document indicates that the government deploys people who use online personas for intelligence, counterintelligence and law-enforcement operations.
The document acknowledges that cyber-operations could come with collateral damage. Cyber-operations, “even for subtle and clandestine operations, may generate cyber-effects in locations other than the intended target, with potential unintended or collateral consequences that may effect U.S. national interests in many locations.”
It states that only the president can authorize cyber-operations inside the United States unless “it qualifies as an emergency cyber-action.” A secret 13-page document, obtained by the Post, is called “Procedures for Department and Agency Conduct of Emergency Cyber-operations.”
The document outlines emergency procedures “necessary to mitigate an imminent threat or ongoing attack against U.S. national interests.”