The White House took a first step this week to fulfill President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to launch “crippling, crippling” cyberattacks on adversaries to protect U.S. computer systems, unveiling a new strategy that will allow the United States to take the offensive in cyberspace. But experts warn that the new cyber strategy risks exposing the United States to blowback and turning the internet into a Wild West of hacking operations.
In rolling out the administration’s new “National Cyber Strategy,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said that Trump had removed restrictions on the use of offensive cyber-operations and replaced them with a more permissive legal regime that gives the Defense Department and other agencies greater authority to penetrate foreign networks to deter hacks on U.S. systems.
“Our hands are not tied as they were in the Obama administration,” Bolton said.
Bolton described the new authority as part of an effort to “create powerful deterrence structures that persuade the adversary not to strike in the first place.” Decision-making for launching some attacks will be moved down the chain of command; previously, offensive cyber-operations generally required the approval of the president. Those envisioned in the new policy will include both offensive and defensive actions, only some of which may be made public, Bolton said.
In a separate strategy document released this week, the Defense Department said it would “defend forward” U.S. networks by disrupting “malicious cyber activity at its source.”
The new policy comes amid intense scrutiny of the Trump administration’s efforts to deter foreign interference in the upcoming midterm elections. In 2016, Russian hackers affiliated with military and intelligence agencies hacked computers belonging to the Democratic Party, released stolen emails, and carried out a propaganda campaign to favor Trump’s chances. (Trump, as a candidate, poured skepticism on Russian responsibility but argued the United States should “be better than anybody else” at “the cyber.”)