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Halted '03 Iraq Plan Illustrates ­.s. Fear of Cyberwar Risk

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John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School

John Arquilla, a military strategy expert with the Naval Postgraduate School, believes that "cyberwarriors are held back by extremely restrictive rules of engagement."

Credit: Darrell Miho / The New York Times

At the core of the U.S. Obama Administration and its Pentagon leadership's efforts to develop rules governing cyberwarfare is the question of whether offensive measures could result in unintended damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Two traditional military limitations are currently being applied to cyberwar — proportionality and collateral damage, which requires militaries to minimize civilian casualties. "We are deeply concerned about the second- and third-order effects of certain types of computer network operations, as well as about laws of war that require attacks be proportional to the threat," says a senior military officer.

For example, in 2003 the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies planned a cyberattack designed to freeze billions of dollars in the bank accounts of Saddam Hussein and hamstring his government’s financial system before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, the plan was abandoned out of concern that it could unintentionally generate worldwide financial chaos. "If you don't know the consequences of a counterstrike against innocent third parties, it makes it very difficult to authorize one," says James Lewis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Naval Postgraduate School's John Arquilla says that "extremely restrictive rules of engagement" are holding back the use of cyberweapons, which he insists are "disruptive and not destructive." Cyberattacks may not be as physically destructive as bombs, but they could cripple vital civilian infrastructure such as power grids or water treatment plants, which can be life-threatening.

From The New York Times
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