On May 31, right on the heels of a four-year extension of the Bush-era Patriot Act, the Pentagon declared that they were not ruling out military response in its efforts to deter cyberattacks.
(Interestingly enough, this was announced just 10 days after Lockheed Martin, the biggest military industrial manufacturer/lobbyist on earth, was attacked by hackers.)
There is nothing clear about the Pentagon's language in its strategy regarding cyberattacks: it has declared that a computer attack that “threatens widespread civilian casualties” (threatens?) can be treated as an “act of aggression.” The policy does not establish a sense of what level of cyberattack might provoke a military response; neither does it discuss how the U.S. might respond to a cyberattack by a nonstate actor or a “terrorist group” such as Anonymous.
This, for anyone interested in civil liberties, right to privacy, or free speech — is, and should be, hair-raising. Does this set the stage for the disrupting of service to corporations in the U.S. by hackers to be spun, in typical Washington fashion, into enough of a “threat” to warrant military intervention against U.S. citizens? Since hackers are now officially considered to be domestic terrorists, does this mean that American hackers, under the Patriot Act, can be indefinitely detained as “enemy combatants?”
Back in early 2010, I wrote about how Mike Vickers (then the Pentagon's Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operation and Low Intensity Conflict) might be ruining the world.
Vickers, a former CIA officer and Green Beret with extensive experience in paramilitary “black” operations (including engineering the largest covert action in CIA history: the arming of the mujahedeen in order to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s — a role for which he was dramatized in the movie Charlie Wilson's War) was one of the few Bush-appointed senior Pentagon officials to make it into the Obama administration. More recently, Vickers was credited as being the mastermind of the “Shadow Wars”: covert teams of Special Forces counterterrorism networks deployed into roughly 12 countries including Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, Iran and unnamed European countries.
Vickers convinced the Pentagon to make irregular warfare a core military mission in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, and set in motion the plan to increase each of the Army's five active Special Forces groups by one battalion by 2012. He joined the Pentagon in 2007 to oversee SOCOM, the Special Operations Command — the fastest-growing branch of the U.S. military. Vickers has been the principal intelligence advisor to the Secretary of Defense, with access to all of the special-access programs within the highly Balkanized intelligence compartments inside the Department of Defense. Inside the Beltway, Vickers is characterized as an information-hoarder who strategically leverages his knowledge of top secret black operations in order to rise in government and expand the reach of his own power.
In January of this year, Vickers appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he was questioned about a classified report that was supposed to brief Congress on secret military activities; the report failed to disclose the Pentagon's clandestine cyber activities.
“The Senate Armed Services Committee voiced concerns that cyber activities were not included in the quarterly report on clandestine activities,” wrote Lolita C. Baldor of the Associated Press. “But Vickers, in his answer, suggested that such emerging high-tech operations are not specifically listed in the law — a further indication that cyber oversight is still a murky work in progress for the Obama administration.”
In the information-hoarding style that has become his trademark, Vickers, who had just been nominated as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, essentially leveraged his information about the Pentagon's clandestine cyber-activities as a means of jockeying himself into a promotion: he told Congress that he would tell them what was going on with cyber-warfare in the Pentagon ... if he was confirmed.
He did, however, sharply condemn leaks of classified data (such as, most famously, the cables obtained by WikiLeaks), including such unauthorized disclosures among “the most serious problems he would face.”
Vickers was confirmed in his new position as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence on March 16.
The handing of such powers to the Pentagon and the NSA creates a very slippery slope with regard to the civilian control of the military. An executive order could easily expand USCYBERCOM's spectrum of operations if the U.S. is faced with a cyberattack, and such an expansion could — God, correct me if I'm wrong — subject U.S. citizens deemed to be a “threat to national security” (read: a threat to corporate interests) to prosecution by our own military.
From The New York Times, on May 31:
“The Pentagon strategy is coming out at a moment when billions of dollars are up for grabs among federal agencies working on cyber-related issues, including the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.”
Call me paranoid, but it seems that Mike Vickers and Lockheed Martin are being just a little cavalier about protecting our personal freedoms.