U.S. Cyber War Against Russia Without The President’s Knowledge?
A new report in The New York Times raises both national security and Constitutional concerns.
The New York Times is out with an eyebrow-raising potentially blockbuster report about an alleged American program to place malware inside places such as Russia’s power grid, but the most disturbing thing about the report is the questions it raises about how the Federal Government is operating in the Trump Era:
WASHINGTON — The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.
In interviews over the past three months, the officials described the previously unreported deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections.
Advocates of the more aggressive strategy said it was long overdue, after years of public warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. that Russia has inserted malware that could sabotage American power plants, oil and gas pipelines, or water supplies in any future conflict with the United States.
But it also carries significant risk of escalating the daily digital Cold War between Washington and Moscow.
The administration declined to describe specific actions it was taking under the new authorities, which were granted separately by the White House and Congress last year to United States Cyber Command, the arm of the Pentagon that runs the military’s offensive and defensive operations in the online world.
But in a public appearance on Tuesday, President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said the United States was now taking a broader view of potential digital targets as part of an effort “to say to Russia, or anybody else that’s engaged in cyberoperations against us, ‘You will pay a price.'”
Power grids have been a low-intensity battleground for years.
Since at least 2012, current and former officials say, the United States has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid.
But now the American strategy has shifted more toward offense, officials say, with the placement of potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before. It is intended partly as a warning, and partly to be poised to conduct cyberstrikes if a major conflict broke out between Washington and Moscow.
The commander of United States Cyber Command, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, has been outspoken about the need to “defend forward” deep in an adversary’s networks to demonstrate that the United States will respond to the barrage of online attacks aimed at it
“They don’t fear us,” he told the Senate a year ago during his confirmation hearings.
But finding ways to calibrate those responses so that they deter attacks without inciting a dangerous escalation has been the source of constant debate.
Mr. Trump issued new authorities to Cyber Command last summer, in a still-classified document known as National Security Presidential Memoranda 13, giving General Nakasone far more leeway to conduct offensive online operations without receiving presidential approval.
But the action inside the Russian electric grid appears to have been conducted under little-noticed new legal authorities, slipped into the military authorization bill passed by Congress last summer. The measure approved the routine conduct of “clandestine military activity” in cyberspace, to “deter, safeguard or defend against attacks or malicious cyberactivities against the United States.”
Under the law, those actions can now be authorized by the defense secretary without special presidential approval.
“It has gotten far, far more aggressive over the past year,” one senior intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity but declining to discuss any specific classified programs. “We are doing things at a scale that we never contemplated a few years ago.”
The critical question — impossible to know without access to the classified details of the operation — is how deep into the Russian grid the United States has bored. Only then will it be clear whether it would be possible to plunge Russia into darkness or cripple its military — a question that may not be answerable until the code is activated.
This part of the article raises some rather obvious concerns about where the future direction of warfare might be headed and the extent to which this new form of what amounts to warfare could spin out of control without the ability of civilian authorities to control it. Even taking into account the fact that Russia and other nations have apparently been trying to undertake programs such as this in the past, even preparing for an attack on a nation’s power grid raises the prospect of retaliation that, quite honestly, could do far more damage to the United States or Western Europe than it likely would to Russia or China. Imagine living in the United States without power for months at a time, whether in the winter or the summer, and what that could mean for a breakdown in the ability of civilian authorities to keep the peace, especially in major cities. Potentially, this form of warfare could be as devastating as a nuclear attack, which makes the fact that it is happening in secret and in a manner that potentially could spin out of control
Getting beyond the dangers of unconstrained, secret, and unregulated cyber warfare, though, the Times article raises another, far more serious, concern:
Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.
Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.
Because the new law defines the actions in cyberspace as akin to traditional military activity on the ground, in the air or at sea, no such briefing would be necessary, they added.
As much as I dislike and distrust President Trump, the idea that the CIA or military is hiding information from the President, as implied in the report, is disturbing from an institutional and Constitutional point of view. The President is the head of the government and that head of state, As such, the intelligence agencies and military are beneath him in the line of succession and they have an obligation to make sure he’s fully briefed about what those agencies are doing. To be sure, there are times when the President is not fully briefed on operations so as to shield him from knowledge of certain events. This is where we get the concept of “deniability,” although as we learned in the Iran/Contra Scandal, that concept can be carried to dangerous extremes. Additionally, it isn’t always necessary for a President to be fully informed about the “sources and methods” used to obtain intelligence. Undertaking an operation such as this against Russia, China, or any other nation without the knowledge of the President and, I might add Congress, raises serious Constitutional concerns.
To be fair, it does appear from the Times report that at least some of the cyber activities that are being undertaken are being done pursuant to Presidential directive and/or Congressional delegation as part of the most recently passed defense budget. However, the fact that defense and intelligence officials seem to be withholding information from the President because they don’t trust him to keep it secret is concerning. It isn’t the job of civilians in the intelligence community or civilians or military officers to decide what operations to undertake, and that is especially true when it comes to something such as what is described in the Times report. At the very least this is something that deserves, and calls for, further investigation.