Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran


WASHINGTON — The admiral who directs American cyberforces told a Senate committee on Thursday that the United States was “at a tipping point” where it needed to increase its ability to conduct cyberattacks, to create a deterrent against other countries that are attacking it.

The growing American capabilities in cyberweapons are hardly a secret: They were critical to a yearslong American and Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and descriptions of the placement of “implants” in foreign computer systems — for surveillance and potential offensive action — run through thousands of pages of documents released by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

But the willingness of Adm. Michael S. Rogers to discuss purely offensive cyberweapons in his appearance before the Armed Services Committee comes at a moment when the Obama administration is reluctantly experimenting with how to discuss the subject in public, much as it gradually began to talk about drone strikes a few years ago.

Admiral Rogers, who heads both the National Security Agency and its military cousin, United States Cyber Command, was answering questions about how the United States could deter attacks like the kind that struck Sony Pictures Entertainment. President Obama has said publicly that the attack originated in North Korea.

When pressed, Admiral Rogers said that erecting ever-higher digital fences would never be enough, and that “we have got to broaden our capabilities to provide policy makers and operational commanders with a broader range of options. Because in the end, a purely defensive reactive strategy will be both late” and would become “incredibly resource-intense.”

“So, I have been an advocate of, we also need to think about how can we increase our capacity on the offensive side here, to get to that point of deterrence.”

In interviews as he came into office last year, Admiral Rogers identified creating some form of deterrence as his highest priority. At the time, he said, Chinese and other attackers who steal data from American companies “pay no price.”

In the case of North Korea, the United States imposed some modest economic sanctions, and it is unclear whether an attack that slowed the North’s Internet connections was the result of American action or some other kind of action. In any event, the response was weak enough that many in the Obama administration question whether the North paid a high enough price.

But as Admiral Rogers attempted to describe to the committee, deterrence in the digital realm is a complex business; most comparisons to the nuclear age fail. There are so many different kinds of cyberattackers — states, businesses, hackers, teenagers, angry ideologues — that it would be nearly impossible to deter them with traditional means, most experts say.

Admiral Rogers himself seemed to be struggling with the analogies at times, comparing the decisions that national leaders will have to make with those faced by the Bush administration on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. At that time the question was whether the United States would be willing to make “the decision that we were going to shoot down, potentially, a civilian airliner that we thought had potentially become a weapon.”

“I think we need to have that same discussion now,” Admiral Rogers said. “We’ve got to increase our decision makers’ comfort and level of knowledge with what capabilities we have and what we can do.”

The committee chairman, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued for a robust offensive cybercapability, jumped in to say, “But right now, the level of deterrence is not deterring.

“That is true,” Admiral Rogers responded.

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