The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Obama Seeks Broad New Powers in Digital War

A confidential legal review has just decided that the President should have broad power to issue preemptive cyber attacks, says the NYT.

This review comes at a time when the pace of attacks on sensitive computer systems has picked up. The Energy Department, two American power stationsthe NYT, the WSJ, and Washington Post have all been recent victims of recent assaults, at least three of which allegedly came from China. These attacks have the potential to cripple an entire nation’s infrastructure, from a distance, and without the use of explosives.

But some fear the Obama Administration is going too far—especially in arguing that presidents should have preemptive strike power in conflicts where preemptive action isn’t clearly necessary:

Pre-emption always has been a disputed legal concept. Most recently Mr. Bush made it a central justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on faulty intelligence about that country’s weapons of mass destruction. Pre-emption in the context of cyberwar raises a potentially bigger quandary, because a country hit by a pre-emptive cyberstrike could easily claim that it was innocent, undermining the justification for the attack. “It would be very hard to provide evidence to the world that you hit some deadly dangerous computer code,” one senior official said.

New technology is stretching our traditional understanding of war, and we hope to see many more debates about the proper limits of presidential power in these conflicts, akin to the furious debate over drone technology we have seen in recent months.

Published on February 6, 2013 2:08 pm