Cyberwar Is War, White House Said– but NYT Didn’t Notice

Posted by in Commentary

For the second time this week, the New York Times has published a revealing report on a secret, legally questionable Obama administration program, but failed to include independent legal analysis of the controversial program.

Tuesday’s Times report on the White House’s drone assassination program included no critical analysis of the thorny legal issues raised by the program. Surely independent legal experts would have something to say about the  program at large, but particularly about such details as the White House’s bizarre definition  that counts any military-aged male found in the vicinity of a bombing target as a combatant, and thus killable; or itsinsistence that secret White House discussions of potential assassination targets qualify as “due process” under the Fifth Amendment.

Today’s Times story ( “Obama Ordered Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran”) was useful and revealing. But it would have been much more interesting had reporter David Sanger cited independent legal experts on whether such cyberattacks constitute acts of war. If they do, the White House program could have far more profound consequences than merely disrupting Iran’s nuclear program.

And if he has trouble pinning down a precise definition of what makes a cyberattack an act of war, Sanger could just quote from the Obama administration’s opinions on the question.

Last year the White House commissioned a major study of cyberspace, International Strategy for Cyberspace (5/11), which found that

States have an inherent right to self-defense that may be triggered by certain aggressive acts in cyberspace…. Certain hostile acts conducted through cyberspace could compel actions under the commitments we have with our military treaty partners…. When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would any other threat to our country.

Sanger’s failure to mention the White House view on how cyber attacks can be acts of war is all the more curious since he cites the report to make the less provocative point that Obama came to office with an interest in cyber issues: “He commissioned a major study on how to improve America’s defenses and announced it with great fanfare in the East Room.”

As Glenn Greenwald notes today, the Pentagon is similarly on the record arguing that cyberattacks are acts of war:

Needless to say, if any cyber-attack is directed at the U.S. –rather than by the U.S.–it will be instantly depicted as an act of unparalleled aggression and evil: Terrorism. Just last year, the Pentagon decreed that any cyberattack on the U.S. would be deemed “an act of war.”

If the U.S. government defines cyberattacks as acts of war, shouldn’t that be mentioned in a Times report about how the U.S. is spearheading cyberattacks on Iran?