Commentary Magazine


Topic: cyberwarfare

McCain’s Stance on Cybersecurity Is Wrong

There are few politicians–heck, few Americans, period–for whom I have greater respect than John McCain. Not only do I have endless admiration for his character, I find his policy judgment, especially in the national security area, to be close to faultless. Which may be just another way of saying I seldom disagree with him. But I find myself in disagreement with his stance on cybersecurity–as does one of his closest Senate colleagues, Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to set minimal cybersecurity standards for air traffic control systems, dams, power plants and other such facilities that are absolutely essential to the safe functioning of the American economy. This is a major issue at a time when, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, has just warned cyberattacks aimed at U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2012. General Alexander further said that “on a scale of 1 to 10, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is ‘around a 3.’ ”

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There are few politicians–heck, few Americans, period–for whom I have greater respect than John McCain. Not only do I have endless admiration for his character, I find his policy judgment, especially in the national security area, to be close to faultless. Which may be just another way of saying I seldom disagree with him. But I find myself in disagreement with his stance on cybersecurity–as does one of his closest Senate colleagues, Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to set minimal cybersecurity standards for air traffic control systems, dams, power plants and other such facilities that are absolutely essential to the safe functioning of the American economy. This is a major issue at a time when, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, has just warned cyberattacks aimed at U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2012. General Alexander further said that “on a scale of 1 to 10, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is ‘around a 3.’ ”

The only way to raise our level of preparedness is to give the federal government more authority to protect civilian infrastructure. As things stand, Alexander’s NSA can mount offensive cyberoperations against other countries but can only protect Defense Department networks in this country. The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to protect the civilian networks on which we all depend–and whose disruption via cyberattack could cripple our economy. But DHS does not have the resources or authorities to get the job done. Understandable concerns about privacy have made it impossible to fix this situation on Capitol Hill. Lieberman’s legislation is a start toward fixing this major vulnerability but, thanks to objections from Sen. McCain and the Chamber of Commerce, the bill has been watered down so the cybersecurity standards will now be optional. Optional standards make sense when it comes to governing the size of sodas–not when it comes to protecting critical infrastructure.

While the federal government has undoubtedly extended its reach into all kinds of areas where it does not belong, national defense remains its core responsibility–and in the 21st century that must mean defense from cyberthreats as well as physical ones. Until Congress moves to fix our vulnerabilities, we will remain wide open to attack by China, Russia, and other countries in the forefront of developing offensive cyberwarfare capabilities.

One only need look at the damage that the Stuxnet virus–cooked up by the U.S. and Israel–did to the Iranian nuclear program; now imagine the Iranians returning the favor with a virus that incapacitates major parts of the American electric grid. That is a nightmare scenario that we must worry about, and Congress’s failure to act will only encourage the world’s cyberpredators to continue developing and deploying ever-more fiendish computer weapons against us.

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The Wrong People Are Doing the Right Thing

Mark Steyn, writing in COMMENTARY last November, pulled out a great quote:

In 1975, Milton Friedman said this: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”

Perhaps that climate is upon us. Who, in political terms, is more “wrong” than the progressive whistlers inhabiting the fiscal graveyard known as California? Yet, on Tuesday, Chuck Reed, the Democratic mayor of liberal San Jose won nearly 70 percent support for a ballet initiative that will deal huge cuts to the bloated pensions of city workers. Currently, retirement costs eat up more than 20 percent of San Jose’s general fund. None other than a Democratic mayor, backed by a clear majority, intends to slam on the brakes. Tea Party not needed.

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Mark Steyn, writing in COMMENTARY last November, pulled out a great quote:

In 1975, Milton Friedman said this: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”

Perhaps that climate is upon us. Who, in political terms, is more “wrong” than the progressive whistlers inhabiting the fiscal graveyard known as California? Yet, on Tuesday, Chuck Reed, the Democratic mayor of liberal San Jose won nearly 70 percent support for a ballet initiative that will deal huge cuts to the bloated pensions of city workers. Currently, retirement costs eat up more than 20 percent of San Jose’s general fund. None other than a Democratic mayor, backed by a clear majority, intends to slam on the brakes. Tea Party not needed.

On national security, we see similarly encouraging signs. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry were among others who called for an investigation into recent Obama administration leaks about American cyberwarfare action against Iran. “Whoever is doing that is not acting in the interest of the United States of America,” said Kerry, using the kind of black-and-white tough talk he used to accuse the Bush administration of using to divisive effect.

And of course a slew of Democrats, from Feinstein to Deval Patrick to Bill Clinton, called foul on Barack Obama’s anti-private-equity reelection strategy.

The beautiful thing about living in a democracy with protected speech is that politicians aren’t solely in charge of framing the terms of debate—citizens set the political climate. In what has already passed of the Obama years, the temperature has been raised enough to make liberals sweat. Today a trickle. Tomorrow who knows? As Friedman saw it, that’s ultimately a greater conservative victory than what may transpire in November.

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Why Doesn’t the Media Get Israeli Politics?

Lee Smith has an interesting take on one aspect of the administration’s calculated cyberleaks, produced obediently by the New York Times, detailing the cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in conducting cyberwarfare against the Iranian nuclear program. It’s true, Smith writes, that in one sense these articles are meant to make Obama seem tough, but they are also to pass the buck if and when things go wrong. Smith writes:

The nature of the story is given away in a quote from Vice President Joe Biden, exasperated after Stuxnet mistakenly appeared on the Web in the summer of 2010, exposing the code. Biden laid the blame at the feet of the administration’s ostensible partner. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” said Biden, according to an unnamed source. “They went too far.” In other words, the Obama White House wants it both ways—to claim credit for the successes of the cyberwarfare campaign and to shift blame on the Israelis in the event that things go wrong.

It’s telling that the administration thinks blaming Israel is a good election strategy, and Smith’s piece is worth reading in full. But a couple quotes from Israeli sources stood out to me. First Yossi Melman, the Israeli journalist, tells Smith: “Israeli officials know that it’s an election year… Israeli officials are not going to rock the boat and ruin the party.” Later in the story, an Israeli intelligence source tells Smith: “No Israeli government is going to be criticized for releasing a virus. We know we are at war, and America does not know it’s at war.”

I’m not so sure that’s the case, but it does reveal something else about the two countries: Israelis understand American politics well, and American officials and journalists don’t seem to understand Israeli politics at all.

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Lee Smith has an interesting take on one aspect of the administration’s calculated cyberleaks, produced obediently by the New York Times, detailing the cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in conducting cyberwarfare against the Iranian nuclear program. It’s true, Smith writes, that in one sense these articles are meant to make Obama seem tough, but they are also to pass the buck if and when things go wrong. Smith writes:

The nature of the story is given away in a quote from Vice President Joe Biden, exasperated after Stuxnet mistakenly appeared on the Web in the summer of 2010, exposing the code. Biden laid the blame at the feet of the administration’s ostensible partner. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” said Biden, according to an unnamed source. “They went too far.” In other words, the Obama White House wants it both ways—to claim credit for the successes of the cyberwarfare campaign and to shift blame on the Israelis in the event that things go wrong.

It’s telling that the administration thinks blaming Israel is a good election strategy, and Smith’s piece is worth reading in full. But a couple quotes from Israeli sources stood out to me. First Yossi Melman, the Israeli journalist, tells Smith: “Israeli officials know that it’s an election year… Israeli officials are not going to rock the boat and ruin the party.” Later in the story, an Israeli intelligence source tells Smith: “No Israeli government is going to be criticized for releasing a virus. We know we are at war, and America does not know it’s at war.”

I’m not so sure that’s the case, but it does reveal something else about the two countries: Israelis understand American politics well, and American officials and journalists don’t seem to understand Israeli politics at all.

The Israelis are at peace with Obama’s strategy, because they get it. It’s an election year. It’s just business. This knowledge gap partially explained Jodi Rudoren’s clumsy transition to the New York Times’s Jerusalem bureau. She made a number of missteps, and explained that she didn’t really know exactly what she was doing yet, and to give her some time to adjust. Fair enough I suppose, but it was telling.

And a perfect example comes from Vanity Fair, which dispatched David Margolick to write a long profile on Benjamin Netanyahu for the magazine’s July issue. It’s now online, and it is truly something to behold. Margolick writes that most of Netanyahu’s decisions can be attributed to the inordinate influence the following people have on his opinions: his wife, Sara; his late father, Benzion; his late brother, Yoni; Ehud Barak; and the last person Netanyahu has spoken to, regardless of who it was.

There may be more in the article, but I stopped reading two pages in when Margolick explicitly compared Bibi to a warmongering Soviet dictator with a split personality. Margolick wasn’t writing that all those people have some influence on Netanyahu; he was making the case that each one has unique control over him. In other words, the article constantly contradicts its own thesis. It is essentially a cry for help. But why? What makes Israeli politics so incomprehensible to the press?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but there are a few possibilities. One is that the left doesn’t understand coalition politics as well as the right, which has to deal with making peace among its various factions. Another is that the liberal media’s echo chamber keeps them in a pack mentality, following the biases of papers like the New York Times. There is of course the left’s anti-Russian-immigrant hysteria, which they direct at Avigdor Lieberman even though he agrees with many of their priorities. It’s also hard to miss the media’s noxious treatment of Orthodox Jews who, much to the left’s eternal chagrin, also participate in Israel’s democratic process.

Maybe it’s something as simple as the media’s deeply personal antipathy toward Netanyahu. Whatever it is, they should figure it out–and soon. These articles portraying Israel’s democratically elected, rational premier as a schizophrenic dictator are getting embarrassing.

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Nyet to Russian Proposal on Cyberwar

Of all the dumb foreign policy ideas out there, it’s hard to beat the Russian proposal for arms control in cyberspace. The subject came up again in this article about Russian anti-virus expert Eugene Kapersky, who discovered the Flame virus directed at the Iranian nuclear program and is widely suspected of links to Russia’s intelligence services. He wants an international treaty banning all computer warfare. Which sounds as if it would be about as useful as the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war in general.

The problem with such noble intentions, of course, is that they lack enforcement authority. That is especially the case in the cyber domain where it is hard to trace hacker attacks to governments. Russia, for one, was widely suspected of being behind computer attacks on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. But Moscow denied all responsibility, and no conclusive evidence was ever released to dispute its claim.

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Of all the dumb foreign policy ideas out there, it’s hard to beat the Russian proposal for arms control in cyberspace. The subject came up again in this article about Russian anti-virus expert Eugene Kapersky, who discovered the Flame virus directed at the Iranian nuclear program and is widely suspected of links to Russia’s intelligence services. He wants an international treaty banning all computer warfare. Which sounds as if it would be about as useful as the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war in general.

The problem with such noble intentions, of course, is that they lack enforcement authority. That is especially the case in the cyber domain where it is hard to trace hacker attacks to governments. Russia, for one, was widely suspected of being behind computer attacks on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. But Moscow denied all responsibility, and no conclusive evidence was ever released to dispute its claim.

If cyberwarfare were actually banned by international treaty, it is likely that the U.S. and other Western democracies would observe the prohibition, but highly improbable, to put it mildly, to imagine that Russia, China, North Korea, Iran or other illiberal states would go along. Under those circumstances, agreeing to ban cyberwar would amount to unilateral disarmament.

Much the same idea afflicts the campaign for “nuclear zero.” If we should have learned anything from the 20th century it is that high-minded treaties don’t keep the peace; strong democracies do. Just as the U.S. became strong in conventional military terms, so now we must establish our strength in cyberspace so as to create deterrence against Russia, China, and other states that might seek to attack our computer networks.

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