As the moment when U.S. President Barack Obama will issue a cybersecurity executive order slowly draws near, other questions that affect the nation’s cyber defense and offense options are discussed and answered in secret by legal review.
Among these is the matter of who has the power of deciding whether a pre-emptive strike should be launched when there are indications that a major digital attack is to be unleashed against the nations’ networks and infrastructures and war hasn’t yet been declared.
According to the NYT and its unnamed sources from within the administration, the President will be able to decide on this matter. In fact, the source says that there are “very, very few instances in cyberoperations in which the decision will be made at a level below the president,” which definitely sounds like the President will be the one who will ultimately decide whether and how an eventual cyberattack against the nation’s infrastructure will be responded to.
This will definitely not be a first of these kind of decisions for President Obama, as he has already approved the use of cyberweapons in attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The cybersecurity executive order will start a voluntary program encompassing minimum security standards that companies in critical infrastructure industries will agree to implement, and will include new policies regulating what intelligence agencies are allowed to do when searching computer networks of foreign countries for signs of possible attacks.
Technically, the U.S. (and any other nation) is allowed by international law to defend itself from threats, but can this rule include pre-emptive cyberstrikes? The problem with cyber attacks is that it is very difficult to establish without a doubt who is behind them.
Also, what is the appropriate and reasonable reaction to such a threat? That will likely be decided on a case-to-case basis. Still, the military is expected to get involved only in cases of a major cyberattack within the United States. What “major” actually means in this case is purposefully left unknown.