In the days before President Obama approved American-led airstrikes in Libya without congressional go-ahead, the White House considered using cyberwarfare to attempt to crush the army of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Hoping to cripple the Gaddafi government’s computer systems and bring down their air-defense network, The New York Times reports today that the Obama administration“intensely debated” if hacking into foreign computers would be a smart move during the start of the ongoing NATO missions in Libya that are largely supported by American troops.
Officials involved with the decision-making of the cyber-attack tell The Times that American authorities were concerned that officially entering an era of high-scale computer warfare could cause competing nations across the globe to respond with cyber crimes of their own against the Pentagon. The US has already accused China, Russia and North Korea of cyberwarfare in the past, however, and has denied responsibility for similar crimes waged against the nation of Iran.
As the US points fingers at superpowers abroad for cybercrimes, today they are admitting that they’ve very recently considered such a route themselves, though wholeheartedly denying it never happened.
Only weeks after the Libya mission began, though, the debate came up once again.
The Times report today also reveals that the Obama administration debated if cyberwarfare would be necessary in the Navy SEAL operation in May that led to the execution of Osama bin Laden at his Abbottabad, Pakistan compound. In that case again, report sources close to the matter, the US ultimately decided against hacking al-Qaeda computers, instead relying on more traditional military routes, such as stealth helicopters and boots on the ground.
“These cybercapabilities are still like the Ferrari that you keep in the garage and only take out for the big race and not just for a run around town, unless nothing else can get you there,” says one Obama official to the Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After the president approved American troops to aid in the NATO-led assault on Gaddafi’s army, Obama stood by his decision to make the move without getting the okay from Congress, even after lawmakers approached the commander-in-chief that he would be in clear violation of the War Powers Resolution Act of the Nixon White House. In his defense, President Obama insisted that the level of “hostilities” overseas did not necessitate a war.
Earlier in 2011, however, both the president and the Pentagon were involved in paperwork that equated cybercrimes on foreign nations as acts of war. According to the United States’ own policy, cybercrimes perpetrated against the US could call for a response from the American military. In that case, American-led cyber attacks on Gaddafi would almost certainly warrant retaliation with not just bytes, but bullets too.
In May of this year, one unnamed military official equated the new policy to The Wall Street Journal this way: “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”
Months later, the US was quick to point the finger at China for a series of Internet crimes waged against several nations, including the States and Taiwan, though lacked any evidence whatsoever.
In the past year, the United States has admitted that cyberattacks would be the future of international warfare, though has denied that they have practiced it themselves. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta even told a Capitol Hill hearing that the “next Pearl Harbor” could likely be caused by computer crimes.
Some, however, believe that the US has been behind acts like this all along, meanwhile denying their involvement. Stuxnet, a 2010 computer worm that targeted Iranian nuclear facilities, is believed by many to be of American origin and infiltrated with the help of Israel. Speaking at a TED Talk earlier this year, researcher Ralph Langner said, "My opinion is that the Mossad is involved but that the leading force is not Israel. The leading force behind Stuxnet is the cyber superpower – there is only one; and that's the United States."