MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Faced with a military provocation - say, like, Iran downing a U.S. drone last week - one possible response is a precise, limited attack. That is an approach taken by a number of recent presidents - a way to send a tough message while stopping short of war. It is also the approach President Trump took two years ago after he accused Syria's military of using chemical weapons against civilians.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.
KELLY: President Trump seemed ready to follow this playbook with Iran, but he called off air strikes and reportedly ordered a cyberattack instead. Now, that move may point to the changing nature of warfare. And for that, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: What do we actually know about these reported cyberattacks against Iran?
MYRE: Well, the government is not acknowledging it publicly. President Trump tweeted about calling off the attacks. He hasn't said anything about a cyberattack. But according to the reports we're seeing, these were aimed at the computers of the Revolutionary Guards that control their missiles and their rockets. And we don't know how potent, how effective it might have been - one of the challenges you face when you carry out a cyberattack.
KELLY: Administrations rarely acknowledge cyberattacks, whether or not they have taken place. But in general, is it fair to say we are seeing more cyberattacks under this administration?
MYRE: Yeah, and we're hearing more about it. And the key figure here is General Paul Nakasone. He is head of both the National Security Agency and Cyber Command. The NSA gathers the information, monitors it - Cyber Command is the part that actually takes action. He's talked about being more aggressive in cyberspace. He's talked about sending Cyber Command forces to Europe to block Russian attempts during the midterm elections. We've heard a report just last week about the U.S. planting malware in the Russian electrical grid.
But, you know, we haven't seen deaths or major damage. So what would cross the threshold to make a cyberattack the equivalent of a conventional military attack? I put that to Jim Lewis, a former U.S. diplomat who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
JIM LEWIS: That threshold is that anything that causes deaths or damage or destruction qualifies as an attack that would justify the use of force in response. If you stay below that, it's a gray area. So people are now playing in the gray area to see, how much can I get away with?
KELLY: Greg Myre, another distinction I suppose between cyber and conventional military attacks - air strikes, missile strikes and so on - is when those strikes hit, you can see if they hit the target. Satellite imagery pops up. They can tell if they got it or not - with cyber, not so much.
MYRE: Yeah. So how do you read the interpretation that the Iranians would have made on something like this? And so that's one of the challenges. But what we do know is a lot of these sort of limited strikes haven't been particularly effective in the past. The U.S. has gone after a number of leaders - Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and others - and they haven't changed their actions over time. So what we saw here was something that's sort of perhaps unique where a president sort of came to the edge of a military strike and then opted for a cyber attack instead.
KELLY: And to circle us back to Iran and whatever may or may not have happened, if there were cyberattacks against Iran, that would not be the first case of cyber between these two countries.
MYRE: No, it would not. We've seen a number - the Stuxnet attack against their nuclear program, Iran has hit casinos in Las Vegas. They've hit banks. So we've had several rounds of these already and expect more to come.
KELLY: Thank you, Greg.
MYRE: Thank you.
KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre.
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