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The Pentagon continues preparation for a different kind of war. In addition to fighting on land, in the air, on the sea, and in space, the United States now has a strategy for cyberspace. The Pentagon unveiled its cyber strategy yesterday. The plan is to deter potential enemies from carrying out cyber attacks, and be ready to respond if an attack comes.
Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN: Computer systems underlie virtually every aspect of daily life in America, from power and transportation systems to communication and commerce. The U.S. military relies heavily on data networks in war-fighting. But this leaves the nation vulnerable to a major cyber attack and until now, the Pentagon has not said how, exactly, it would respond. Yesterday, it took a step in that direction. Here's Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn.
Deputy Secretary WILLIAM LYNN (Department of Defense): The United States reserves the right, under the laws of armed conflict, to respond to serious cyber attacks with a proportional and justified military response at the time and place of its choosing.
GJELTEN: In other words, Lynn explained, if the effects of a cyber attack on the United States are comparable to what a traditional military attack would bring about, the U.S. could strike back just as it would if the country were bombed.
Deputy Sec. LYNN: If there's massive damage, massive human losses, significant economic damage, it would be in those circumstances that I think the president would consider all of the tools that he has - economic, diplomatic, and as a last resort, military.
GJELTEN: For a cyber attack to be met with military retaliation under the Pentagon guidelines, it would have to be considered an act of war. Of course, that would be a call for the president or Congress, not the Pentagon, as General James Cartwright pointed out yesterday. He's the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
General JAMES CARTWRIGHT (Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): An act of war is a judgment. It's subjective. It's in the eyes of the beholder.
GJELTEN: In fact, the Pentagon wants potential enemies to be unsure how a cyber attack would be met. The Defense Department's new cyber strategy is based on the idea of deterring attacks, not retaliating for them. The emphasis is on making the United States less vulnerable to cyber attacks, so an adversary would see less benefit in attacking.
But there is another concern. The more you prepare for cyber war, the more you might militarize cyberspace. The Pentagon's cyber strategy was debated for some time while other government agencies weighed in with their own ideas of what cyberspace represents. For the Commerce Department, it's an arena of international trade. For the State Department, it's a political arena, where people can express themselves and gather information.
Christopher Painter is the coordinator of cyber issues at the State Department.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER PAINTER (Department of Justice): We have to recognize that cyberspace is predominately a civilian space used for predominately civilian purposes.
GJELTEN: But under the Pentagon strategy, cyberspace is now, officially, also a war-fighting domain. Pentagon officials don't dispute that it's important to promote cyber cooperation among countries, but they also feel the need to warn that countries are conducting more and more espionage in cyberspace.
In presenting the department's cyber strategy yesterday, Deputy Secretary Lynn pointed out the data stolen in recent months from U.S. networks have compromised sensitive systems: avionics, surveillance technology and missile tracking, for example. And he revealed that a U.S. Defense contractor in March suffered a huge theft of secret data.
Deputy Sec. LYNN: It was large - 24,000 files. It was done, we think, by a foreign intelligence service. In other words, a nation-state was behind it.
GJELTEN: In the next few months, the State Department, Homeland Security and other Cabinet departments will be unveiling their own cyber strategies. Each will reflect the priorities and concerns of that department.
The State Department's Christopher Painter says Internet and cybersecurity policies will need to be coordinated, but he says communication across government agencies is better than it used to be.
Mr. PAINTER: You had people who were looking at the economic aspects; you had people looking at the security aspects; you had people looking at the Internet freedom aspects. They seldom - really, those communities seldom talk together.
GJELTEN: That is changing. Painter was in the front row yesterday as the Pentagon unveiled its cyber strategy.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.