When Does A Cyber Attack Constitute An Act Of War? We Still Don’t Know

news
National Guard soldiers and airmen move swiftly through the Cyber City area of operation as Blue Team defenders during Cyber Shield 2016 at Camp Atterbury, Ind., April 20, 2016.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Stephanie A. Hargett

Editor’s Note: This article by Bryant Jordan originally appeared on Military.com, the premier source of information for the military and veteran community.


Pentagon leaders are still working to determine when, exactly, a cyber attack against the United States would constitute an act of war, and when, exactly, the Defense Department would respond to a cyber attack on civilian infrastructure, a senior Defense Department official told lawmakers on Wednesday.

A cyber strike as an act of war "has not been defined," Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security Thomas Atkin told the House Armed Services Committee. "We're still working toward that definition."

The White House and Pentagon let it be known in 2011 that acts such as shutting down the U.S. power grid via a cyber attack could be seen as an act of war that would bring not only a cyber-response but perhaps "a missile down one of your smokestacks," a DoD official said at the time.

Related: How Should The US Respond To Cyber Attacks? »

That bit of colorful language was not included in the final, published strategy, which did state that: "When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country. We reserve the right to use all necessary means -- diplomatic, informational, military, and economic -- as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our Nation, our allies, our partners, and our interests."

In recent years, the United States, including Pentagon and White House computer systems, have been hacked, reportedly by China and Russia.

Yet the United States has not — at least publicly — declared exactly what kinds of attacks and what level of damage would trip the threshold into an act of war. Three years ago, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters that Congress should ultimately make such a call.

"It's called the War Powers Act," Dempsey said. "And here's why that's important. There is an assumption out there, I think, and I would like to disabuse you of it, that a cyber-attack that had destructive effects would be met by a cyber response with destructive attacks. That's not necessarily the case."

Also not clearly defined, Atkin told lawmakers, is when the military would defend or go on the offense against state or non-state actors launching a cyber-attack on a civilian U.S. target, which he referred to as an "act of significant consequence."

"As regards an act of significant consequence, we don't necessarily have a clear definition that says this will always meet [the requirement]," he said, "but we evaluate it based on loss of life, physical property, economic impact and our foreign policy."

Atkin said he could not answer a hypothetical posed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, on whether loss of life resulting from an attack on the electrical grid cutting off power to hospitals would constitute an attack of significant consequence.

"What I would say is, regardless of whether the attack is of significant consequence or not, the Department of Homeland Security would respond, and if they needed assistance from the Department of Defense, they would ask for that … and we would respond [through DHS] to help that critical infrastructure," Atkin said.

He also said that Army National Guard cyber troops receive the same type of training as the active-duty force and could be activated under state authority.

"We recently completed coordination, train, advise and assist policy guidance within the department to allow National Guard troops to use Department of Defense resources to respond to a cyber event under state authority, and we're continuing to work other policies" toward the same end, he said.

This article originally appeared on Military.com.

More from Military.com:

"It's kind of like the equivalent of dropping a soda can into canyon and putting on a blindfold and going and finding it, because you can't just look down and see it," diver Jeff Goodreau said of finding the wreck.

The USS Eagle 56 was only five miles off the coast of Maine when it exploded.

The World War I-era patrol boat split in half, then slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The Eagle 56 had been carrying a crew of 62. Rescuers pulled 13 survivors from the water that day. It was April 23, 1945, just two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

The U.S. Navy classified the disaster as an accident, attributing the sinking to a blast in the boiler room. In 2001, that ruling was changed to reflect the sinking as a deliberate act of war, perpetuated by German submarine U-853, a u-boat belonging to Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine.

Still, despite the Navy's effort to clarify the circumstances surrounding the sinking, the Eagle 56 lingered as a mystery. The ship had sunk relatively close to shore, but efforts to locate the wreck were futile for decades. No one could find the Eagle 56, a small patrol ship that had come so close to making it back home.

Then, a group of friends and amateur divers decided to try to find the wreck in 2014. After years of fruitless dives and intensive research, New England-based Nomad Exploration Team successfully located the Eagle 56 in June 2018.

Business Insider spoke to two crew members — meat truck driver Jeff Goodreau and Massachusetts Department of Corrections officer Donald Ferrara — about their discovery.

Read More Show Less
(CIA photo)

Before the 5th Special Forces Group's Operational Detachment Alpha 595, before 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's MH-47E Chinooks, and before the Air Force combat controllers, there were a handful of CIA officers and a buttload of cash.

Read More Show Less

The last time the world saw Marine veteran Austin Tice, he had been taken prisoner by armed men. It was unclear whether his captors were jihadists or allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad who were disguised as Islamic radicals.

Blindfolded and nearly out of breath, Tice spoke in Arabic before breaking into English:"Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus."

That was from a video posted on YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012, several weeks after Tice went missing near Damascus, Syria, while working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and the Washington Post.

Now that Tice has been held in captivity for more than seven years, reporters who have regular access to President Donald Trump need to start asking him how he is going to bring Tice home.

Read More Show Less

"Shoots like a carbine, holsters like a pistol." That's the pitch behind the new Flux Defense system designed to transform the Army's brand new sidearm into a personal defense weapon.

Read More Show Less

Sometimes a joke just doesn't work.

For example, the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service tweeted and subsequently deleted a Gilbert Gottfried-esque misfire about the "Storm Area 51" movement.

On Friday DVIDSHUB tweeted a picture of a B-2 bomber on the flight line with a formation of airmen in front of it along with the caption: "The last thing #Millenials will see if they attempt the #area51raid today."

Read More Show Less