Pentagon Unveils Plan To Defend Against Cyberattack

The Pentagon unveiled its strategy Thursday for defending against cyberattack, officially classifying cyberspace as a war-fighting domain along with air, sea and space. Robert Siegel talks with NPR's Tom Gjelten about the new strategy.

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SIEGEL: For the first time, the Pentagon has outlined how it plans to fight in cyberspace. The Defense Department's new cyber strategy assumes the next war will include attacks on U.S. computer networks. And if those attacks lead to death and destruction, the U.S. could retaliate with force.

William Lynn, the deputy secretary of defense, spoke about that today.

Deputy Secretary WILLIAM LYNN (Defense Department): The United States reserves the right under the laws of armed conflict to respond to serious cyber attacks with the proportional and justified military response at the time and place of its choosing.

SIEGEL: For more on this, we're joined now by NPR's Tom Gjelten. And Tom, the Pentagon says it might respond to a serious cyber attack with military force. What does serious mean, in this case?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, Robert, that cyber attack would actually have to be considered an act of war and that is a judgment call, a judgment call that ultimately would have to made by the president or by Congress. And General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, pointed out that it's judgment that would be made in the eyes of the beholder.

Now, having said that, they did lay out some guidelines and the key thing is that a cyber attack would be judged by what effect it had, what results it had. If it produced damage equivalent to what would come from a physical attack, it could prompt a military response. That could be a missile strike or a bombing or something like that.

Now, having said that, there are two quick points to emphasize. One is that the Pentagon says that a cyber attack on this scale at this point would be highly unlikely. Second, it's not the first time we've heard this. The White House has basically hinted at that before. This is, however, the plainest language that we've heard in that regard.

SIEGEL: But by saying effect, you're saying that also as opposed to intent, that somebody who tried to take out a huge computer network but failed, that wouldn't provoke a response?

GJELTEN: Military officials are emphasizing it would be judged by the effect that attack had.

SIEGEL: Is there any concern here that the language out of the Pentagon today might appear to militarize cyberspace in a way that it might not be militarized now?

GJELTEN: That's a big concern, Robert. And it's a concern shared by other governments, obviously, but even within the U.S. government cyberspace is seen differently in different sectors of the government. The Commerce Department, for example, sees it as an arena where commercial transactions, where trade takes place. The State Department looks at it as a place - kind of a political arena where we've seen, for example, how important social media were in the Middle East. So they're very concerned about internet freedom. And they see it as a civilian space.

And this is one reason - disagreements about the meaning of cyberspace is one reason the Pentagon cyber-strategy was actually quite slow in coming out.

SIEGEL: And the Pentagon has evidence of its concerns about what the threat is in cyberspace?

GJELTEN: Well, yeah, the Pentagon is sensitive to these concerns that cyberspace should be kept civilian, but it does say that there is reason to fear a cyber war or a cyber attack.

And they pointed out today, for the first time, very specific information about some of the military systems that have been attacked - aircraft avionics, surveillance technologies, missile tracking systems. They also mentioned a defense contractor that was penetrated in March by a foreign intelligence service. Twenty-four thousand files were stolen.

SIEGEL: Is that war, though, or is that espionage?

GJELTEN: That could be considered preparing the battlefield in military terms, sort of reconnaissance, kind of a pre-war stage. It just means that the military feels it needs to be prepared for war.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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