The United States is preparing to launch its first officially-acknowledged cyberwar, and the target will almost certainly be Iran.
This war, like another campaign in the same neighborhood, will be based on intelligence only the reigning U.S. Administration has seen and will happen without public approval. Woo and/or hoo.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last week that the country is preparing to take pre-emptive action if a serious cyberattack is imminent. In case you had any doubts about how he defines imminent, he also said the United States was at risk of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor.”
And, in case that rhetorical flourish wasn’t enough, Leon added, "A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11.” It’s a shame he left out the sinking of the USS Maine.
Panetta added stuff about how U.S. intelligence showed "foreign actors" were targeting control systems for utilities, industry and transport. The actors are also apparently creating advanced tools to subvert key computer-control systems and wreak havoc. No word yet on any cream-frosted yellow-cake uranium, though.
The next day, as if on cue (and it was), The New York Times posted a story with the headline “U.S. Suspects Iran Was Behind a Wave of Cyberattacks.” Lord knows if it’s in the NYT it’s got to be true. Well, except for the last time the government was ginning up an excuse for war.
So is this a well-orchestrated PR campaign by the Administration? Clearly.
Do they have the intelligence proving what they claim? Certainly there are a lot third party reports of Iran doing nasty things, but certainty in the cyber world comes only when you have hard drives in hand.
Or if you're the U.S., according to Panetta: "Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for actions that harm America or its interests."
Despite this assurance, the fact is that I have no idea if Iran is doing all that they’re accused of. Neither do you, and that’s a problem.
It’s easy to say that in this case it’s just a cyberwar, so why get so worried? We aren’t putting boots on the ground or manned aircraft overhead, so we’re not putting our own people at risk, right?. For the sake of discussion I will put aside the argument that Iranians are people, too.
First, there’s the principle of the thing.
It’s been 73 years since the last time the U.S. declared and initiated war on a nation. In that time we’ve been involved in five major conflicts and Lord knows how many “minor” ones. (Who can keep count? There’s been at least six in Central America alone.) It is now taken for granted that the President can send U.S. troops into combat for any length of time without needing as much as a nod and a wink from the rest of the American public.
In Korea and the first Iraq war the physical evidence for the casus belli was pretty clear. In Vietnam, we invented the Tonkin Gulf Incident, and in Iraq and Afghanistan we didn’t even bother with that much.
It would be nice if we, the people, were consulted in some way, shape or form before the nation takes military action that isn’t emergency action. Just a thought.
The other issue that always needs to be remembered: In war there is no sure thing. The friction of battle changes plans and outcomes. As we have seen in Iran, even if you win the war easily you can still lose the peace.
But really, what am I getting so concerned about? It’s just a cyberwar. What could possibly go wrong?
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron." - Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953