President Obama's Hypocrisy on Cyberattacks

A year ago the Obama administration unveiled its "International Strategy for Cyberspace." The document said, among other things, that "aggressive acts in cyberspace" may be viewed by America as acts of war. "When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would any other threat to our country," which may mean the use of "military force." The U.S. "has no intention of sitting quietly while corporate and governmental computer systems are attacked with impunity."

Thanks to reporting by David Sanger in Friday's New York Times, we now know that President Obama, when he signed that document, had already "secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America's first sustained use of cyberweapons." This was the famous Stuxnet computer virus, developed in collaboration with Israel.

To fully appreciate the hypocrisy, you need to read the more high minded parts of that 2011 cyberspace manifesto: "The digital world is no longer a lawless frontier ... It is a place where the norms of responsible, just and peaceful conduct among states and peoples have begun to take hold." Cyberspace must be "built on norms of responsible behavior."

So even as Obama was issuing a clarion call for a global norm against the use of cyberweapons, he was seeing to it that America violated that norm in spectacular fashion. Or, as Jason Healey of the New Atlanticist puts it, "The arsonist wants to legislate better fire codes." (The hypocrisy was originally, but more tentatively, noted by Eric Martin of the Progressive Realist last year when the cyberspace manifesto was released and American involvement in the development of Stuxnet had been reported more conjecturally.)

Healy notes that hypocrisy isn't exactly a new thing in the affairs of nations. But, as he also notes, there are times when the exposure of hypocrisy is particularly costly. One is when you face the dawn of a new technological age and you're trying to establish rules of the road that will benefit countries like yours in particular. A reasonably effective global norm against cyberwarfare wasn't an impossible dream, but thanks to President Obama, it may be now.

According to Sanger, Obama "repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons -- even under the most careful and limited circumstances -- could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks." I guess he gets credit for having the concerns. He'd get more credit if he had shown the wisdom to act on them.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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