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Lawmaker wants to clarify Pentagon’s authority for cyber operations

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Howard McKeon has called for legislative language to clarify that the Pentagon can launch secret cybersecurity operations to support military efforts and guard against network attacks.

In a release of his draft bill of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2013, the Republican lawmaker pushed for a clause to confirm that the Pentagon has “the authority to conduct clandestine military activities in cyberspace.”

Such operations could be taken to protect against cyber attacks or as an extension of military policy if Congress authorized use of force outside the United States, according to the document.

The draft did not clarify what such clandestine activities would encompass, acknowledging instead that “because of the evolving nature of cyber warfare, there is a lack of historical precedent for what constitutes traditional military activities in cyberspace.” The bill could force lawmakers to debate the scope and the authority of the Pentagon’s ability to wage hacking attacks and infiltrate enemy networks.

Clearer guidelines for offensive operations could provide clarity to defense technology contractors. The top three contributors to McKeon’s campaign committee in 2011-2012 were Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group.

“Because of the sensitivities associated with such military activities and the need for more rigorous oversight, this section would require quarterly briefings to the congressional defense committees on covered military activities in cyberspace,” according to the document.

Laws are gradually emerging around the Pentagon’s scope of power for launching military operations in cyberspace. The National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2012 stated that the Pentagon could conduct offensive operations in cyberspace to defend the country and its allies, with the approval of the President.

In March, Regina Dugan, then director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said the military research arm would “focus an increasing portion of our cyber research on the investigation of offensive capabilities to address military-specific needs.”

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