President Obama: The (Unilateral) Cyber Warrior
The NYT has another big expose today on one of the Obama Administration’s secret war, this time detailing the President’s authorization of cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
From his first months in office, President Obama 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, according to participants in the program.
Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet.
Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He 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.
One interesting sidenote not discussed in the article: No one quoted in the article (which is based it seems on self-serving leaks by top Obama aides) seems to have wondered as to whether the President has the constitutional authority to launch cyberattacks on Iran. Congress hasn’t authorized any such attacks (whereas it arguably has done so for the drone program).
Like the drone program, President Bush laid the legal precedents by authorizing cyberattacks on Iran during his term. But Obama, who used to criticize Bush’s expansive notions of executive powers, does not seem to have been troubled by using that authority here. And I am guessing that the emerging bipartisan consensus in the U.S. will be that such attacks fall well within the President’s inherent powers as commander in chief.