By Mike Martin
According to an NBC News report, the Obama administration is contemplating executing unprecedented cyber action against Russia. The White House has reportedly ordered the CIA to prepare and deliver options for “a wide-ranging ‘clandestine’ cyber operation designed to harass and ‘embarrass’ the Kremlin leadership.” The order comes as a potential response to the series of alleged Russian cyberattacks on U.S. political organizations, like the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Senior U.S. officials remain divided over whether a major response to Moscow’s cyberattacks would do more harm than good, but the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence is nonetheless already “opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation.” In addition, former intelligence officers have said that the agency had gathered reams of documents that could expose unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This report aligns well with what Vice President Joe Biden told “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd on Friday. Biden promised “we’re sending a message” to Putin and that “it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.” When asked whether the American public will know if a message was sent, the Vice President replied, “Hope not.”
According to officials, the covert action plan’s goals are to protect the U.S. election system, ensure that Russian hackers cannot interfere with the November vote, and to send a message to Russia that it has crossed a line.
In addition, retired Admiral James Stavridis has also touched on the issue, stating that Russian hacks may only get worse if we do not retaliate. He said: “I would quote a Russian proverb, which is, ‘Probe with bayonets. When you hit mush, proceed. When you hit steel withdraw.’ I think unless we stand up to this kind of cyberattack from Russia, we’ll only see more and more of it in the future.”
The Admiral’s opinion is one way to look at it, but our foreign policy should not be based on Russian proverbs. There are many reasons why this kind of retaliation toward the Russians would be a massive mistake. One reason is that it could effectively create a “cyber cold war.”
Vladimir Putin sent a warning against any planned cyberattack from the White House over the weekend, saying that any U.S. response would only escalate the conflict. This happened when Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency RIA Novosti that the “U.S. unpredictability and aggression keeps growing, and such threats against Moscow and our country’s leadership are unprecedented, because the threat is being announced at the level of the U.S. vice president.” He added, “Given such an aggressive, unpredictable line, we have to take measures to protect our interests, somehow hedge the risks.”
Another argument against retaliation is that if the United States uses a cyber response, it sets a precedent for other countries. Once we use this type of force, it signals that these types of attacks are justified. This reasoning was presented by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, when he expressed skepticism that the United States would go so far as to attack Russian networks. According to Morell, “Physical attacks on networks is not something the U.S. wants to do because we don’t want to set a precedent for other countries to do it as well, including against us.”
The same argument has previously been made about the use of nuclear weapons with the concept of mutually assured destruction. The Obama administration should look to the future and the potential ramifications from our actions. Similar to Pandora’s Box, once you open up this form of attack, it cannot be taken back.
A third reason why retaliation is a bad idea owes to the White House’s transparency thus far. The Obama administration has already announced that the attack is coming, which means that the impending mission is not covert in any sense. This has given the Russians time to prepare to defend any attack, and time to prepare to retaliate, as they have promised. Any attack at this point could be seen coming and could lead to grave embarrassment for the White House.
What is more, because of this transparency, people have already expressed doubt over the seriousness of the report about the cyberwar on Russia. One critic, WikiLeaks, spoke out by stating that, “If the US ‘clandestine’ pending cyber-war on Russia was serious: it would not have been announced and it would be by the National Security Agency (NSA) and not the CIA.”
It will be interesting to see if the White House decides to carry out its promised attack. While the Obama administration risks looking weak if it does not follow through with a promised attack, which could be damaging politically, repercussions from an attack could mean retaliation, setting a dangerous international precedent, and potential embarrassment for the United States.
These consequences all point toward one conclusion: the negatives greatly outweigh the positives and it should not be done.
Michael Martin is a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. He is also pursuing a specialization in cyber and homeland security through Maryland’s new cyber-security certificate program, and he is pursuing a career in the field of homeland security.