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U.S. cyber attacks raise oversight questions

Media reports … (June 17, CNN) revealed that “the U.S. is escalating cyber attacks on Russia’s electric power grid and has placed potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system.”

Presumably in response to Moscow’s apparent cyber efforts to influence this country’s 2016 presidential election, this action is apparently “intended partly as a warning and also to put the U.S. in a position to conduct cyber attacks should a significant conflict arise with Russia.”

The obvious first question is whether pre-positioning a physically destructive offensive capability inside another country’s critical national infrastructure is an appropriate escalatory step in the cyber relationship between the world’s two most highly armed nuclear powers. While this country certainly must address the evident Russian attempt to influence America’s 2016 electoral outcome via fake internet plants – a manifestation in which Americans themselves indulged – is the threat of physical destruction of Russia’s critical infrastructure credible, excessive and/or dangerous? And, one now wonders where the next steps along this escalatory path might go given the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure understood to have been executed by the U.S. and Israel. Does this suggest that the escalatory threshold for further cyber violence between nuclear powers may not be as high as currently thought?

Perhaps more worrisome, however, are the revelations that our system of checks and balances and oversight of the military may be breaking down. It has long been recognized that, since World War II, Congress has progressively abdicated its constitutional responsibility to oversee and delimit the parameters of this country to make war. Observations in the media report that penetration of the Russian electric power infrastructure was executed under provisions of the military authorization act passed last year that allows “routine clandestine military operations in cyberspace.” Here is yet another lowering of the bar to American military operations abroad by congressional abdication of its responsibility for oversight of the executive and the military.

Most troubling of all, however, is the explicit effort by unnamed responsible officials to actively avoid acquiring presidential approval – indeed blocking presidential awareness – that such potentially significant military operations were to be undertaken. Regardless of what one may think of the current president, the commander-in-chief is responsible for the actions of the armed forces. Use of the previously cited military authorization act that permits the secretary of defense to approve clandestine cyber operations without presidential approval in a case with such potential significance as implanting offensive and potentially destructive cyber capabilities in a foreign power’s critical infrastructure clearly demands that the commander in chief be involved.

Finally, one wonders how far America has already gone down this track of penetration of foreign infrastructure systems. Media articles report that the initial authorization for some undefined type of foreign cyber surveillance occurred in 2012. Since then – well before the 2016 election – the U.S. has emplaced “reconnaissance probes” in Russia’s electrical system and the current operation is an “upgrade” to previous efforts. What does the term “reconnaissance probes” really mean and in what other countries have they been emplaced? And, of greater import, what does such an effort really accomplish in providing for America’s national security?

America as a political entity has thrived by the careful balance of competing perspectives constitutionally structured to ensure broadly supported and prudent policies, especially in international relations. This latest example in our relations with Moscow – to say nothing of the evolving situation with Iran – shows the danger of continued incremental abdication of congressional responsibility in the foreign policy domain, and particularly with regard to military operations. The alleged explicit exclusion of the commander in chief from even awareness of the “upgrade” in surveillance of the Russian grid suggests that we now even have a breakdown within the executive branch. Congress and the president need to right the ship before others feel justified in “surveilling” our critical infrastructure.

Gregory D. Vuksich is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as an infantryman in combat and as a Soviet/East Europe political military specialist on active duty. Subsequently, he was a staff member of the United States Senate working for Sen. Pete V. Domenici.

A demonstrator holds an anti-U.S. placard on May 31 during the annual Quds, or Jerusalem Day rally in Tehran, Iran. The top line on the placard in Farsi and the bottom line on the placard in Arabic translate to Death to America.

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