WASHINGTON — After years of confusion over the authority of U.S. computer warriors to mount attacks in cyberspace, the Defense Department is aiming to institute key cyberwarfare guidelines within two months, Defense Department officials told Congress on Tuesday.
The Joint Staff and Office of Secretary of Defense’s policy office have been developing rules defining, among other things, the Pentagon’s authority to engage in “active defenses” designed to head off attacks aimed at Department of Defense computer networks.
Based on the premise the best defense is a good offense, active defense is often defined by cyberexperts as a series of actions that starts with detecting a network intrusion, tracing it back to its source and then executing an electronic counterstrike to end the attack risk.
Gen. Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command as well as the National Security Agency, told members of a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that standing rules of engagement are “at the top of the list of the cyberthings that we’re working on right now” and should be issued within “one to two months,” though legal questions still remain.
“This issue will be what set of authorities will we be given and what are the conditions under which we could conduct those authorities?” he said. “(That) still has to be determined and ironed out within the administration.”
Teresa Takai, DOD chief information officer, said the department is developing a single, joint network architecture to replace the current jumble of disparate networks, simplifying Cyber Command’s job of monitoring Pentagon networks for attacks.
Although the incidence of minor cyber intrusions aimed at harassment or theft continue to mount, many top officials have warned of the possibility of cyberattack causing grave damage and loss of life.
“I think the capabilities are available in cyber to virtually cripple this nation, to bring down the power grid system, to impact on our governmental systems, to impact on Wall Street on our financial systems, and literally to paralyze this country,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month.
DOD and the Department of Homeland Security share information about threats and are exploring collaboration to protect civilian infrastructure, but the extent of the Pentagon’s ultimate role beyond military networks has yet to be defined. But if a damaging cyberattack were menacing the country, Alexander said Tuesday, the president would likely give the Pentagon authority to intervene.
Cyber Command itself still faces challenges, including being “critically short of the skills and the skilled people,” Alexander said in his prepared remarks Tuesday.
Despite the people shortage, Cyber Command is expanding its capabilities and ready to fight if need be, he said.
“We can back up the Department’s assertion that any actor threatening a crippling cyberattack against the United States would be taking a grave risk,” he said.