Loose Use

By Sebastian Sprenger / May 11, 2009 at 5:00 AM

By all accounts, warfare in cyberspace is a murky business. Uncertainty about what constitutes an attack, ignorance of who exactly is behind it, and questions over the proportionality of a U.S. response (nukes, anyone?) make for an entirely novel set of defense policy challenges.

As for the definition of a cyber attack, two senior generals in the cyberspace field last week presented a dose of nuance in the face of the oft-cited assertion that the Defense Department's networks are under “constant attack.”

At a hearing of the House Armed Services terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities subcommittee, panel member Mac Thornberry (R-TX) questioned National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, reportedly the U.S. Cyber Command chief in-waiting, on the issue.

Thornberry: “Well, for example, when the constitution says Congress has the responsibility to declare war, what does that mean when we're under attack every day? How do we deal with warfare in cyberspace?

Alexander: “Well, I think the loose use of the word 'under attack' and 'warfare' is probably more accurately described as people probing our network. We call that -- I think others loosely call that an attack on your network, but it falls short of what I think we would legally look at. And I've got the head lawyer back there right behind me, so he'll raise his hand and make sure I say this right. But . . . “

(At this point, the lawyer apparently nodded, according to a transcript of the session.)

At a breakfast with reporters last week, U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton struck a similar chord, saying probes of U.S. networks resembled to intelligence gathering and espionage activities, not outright acts of war.

Next up on the ladder of cyber force escalation are denial-of-service attacks, which would provide grounds for U.S. military action, both generals said in their respective comments.

“I think in the legal framework it starts to go up to when is it going from exploit to damage? And in that change is where you go from what I'll call spying operations into warfare,” said Alexander.