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Leaked Obama brief reveals US cyber defense, offense policy

'Severely damaging' attacks with 'little or no warning' approved

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The Obama administration has told government agencies to compile a list of potential targets for offensive cyberwarfare actions, where such actions could benefit the interests of the United States, a leaked report reveals.

President Obama signed off on Presidential Policy Directive 20 last November, but its full contents have remained secret until now. The Guardian newspaper obtained a copy of the 18-page document from an anonymous source and posted it to its website on Friday.

In it, the administration outlines broad policies for the conduct of what it terms Offensive and Defensive Cyber Effects Operations (OCEO and DCEO) – yes, "cyberwarfare" apparently didn't sound silly enough – both of which are considered fair game:

The United States has an abiding interest in developing and maintaining use of cyberspace as an integral part of U.S. national capabilities to collect intelligence and to deter, deny, or defeat any adversary that seeks to harm U.S. national interests in peace, crisis, or war.

In the case of OCEO, the directive advises a proactive stance, lest the US be caught with its pants down. When the time comes for an offensive strike, government agencies are advised to know in advance where there adversaries' weak spots are:

OCEO can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance U.S. national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging. The development and sustainment of OCEO capabilities, however, may require considerable time and effort if access and tools for a specific target do not already exist.

The United States Government shall identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power, establish and maintain OCEO capabilities integrated as appropriate with other U.S. offensive capabilities, and execute those capabilities in a manner consistent with the provisions of this directive.

Where DCEO is concerned, the directive establishes policies for striking back against cyber attackers, including provisions for dealing with "persistent malicious cyber activity" and for instigating emergency defensive actions when circumstances call for them.

But the US doesn't plan to just go around conducting cyber operations willy-nilly. According to the directive, DCEO should only be used in cases where "network defense or law enforcement measures are insufficient or cannot be put in place in time to mitigate a threat," or when cyber measures are determined to be the most effective and expedient course of action.

Recognizing that cyber operations can often have far-reaching impact, the directive advises restraint:

DCEO and OCEO may raise unique national security and foreign policy concerns that require additional coordination and policy considerations because cyberspace is globally connected. DCEO and OCEO, even for subtle or clandestine operations, may generate cyber effects in locations other than the intended target, with potential unintended or collateral consequences that may affect U.S. national interests in many locations.

In cases where US cyber operations will produce effects in foreign countries, the government is instructed to obtain consent from those countries – except, that is, in cases of military necessity, or where the US is acting "in accordance with the United States' inherent right of self defense." In the latter case, notifying the other country of the operations after the fact is considered sufficient.

Operations that are likely to result in "significant consequences" – such as loss of life, serious property damage, major economic impact, foreign policy consequences, or significant retaliation by foreign countries – require Presidential approval.

On the whole, the directive requires the US government to conduct OCEO and DCEO only in ways consistent with the US Constitution and applicable United States and international laws – "and, as applicable, the law of armed conflict."

The document goes on to instruct the administration's national security staff to formalize what will become the Cyber Operations Policy Working Group (COP-WG), which will be the primary US government body charged with formulating cyber operations policy.

The COP-WG will then collaborate with the relevant US government departments and agencies – including the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, relevant industry-specific agencies, and others – to develop cyber operations practices that are consistent with government policy.

The publication of Policy Directive 20 comes at a sensitive time for President Obama. As news of it broke, the President was on his way to a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping in California, where cyber espionage and cyber attacks were expected to be key topics of discussion.

The Obama administration has repeatedly and publicly excoriated China for being the leading source of malicious online activity worldwide, but Chinese leaders have countered that charge by insisting that the US, too, routinely engages in cyber operations. The contents of Policy Directive 20 could add weight to China's argument. ®

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