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Obama directive would allow preemptive cyber strikes

Charles Dharapak/AP

President Obama reportedly issued a secret military directive to defend U.S. networks, bypassing Congress and the American public to advance the administration’s security goals.

The new policy directs the Defense Department on how to act against adversary networks when federal or private computer systems are in jeopardy, The Washington Post reports.

The directive, which was signed in mid-October, apparently addresses gaps in legislation, lexicon and departmental jurisdictions.

It authorizes the military to make “a distinction between network defense and cyber operations” -- which are aggressive actions -- when confronted with a computer threat, the Post reports.

“What it does, really for the first time, is it explicitly talks about how we will use cyber operations,” a senior administration official told the Post. “Network defense is what you’re doing inside your own networks. . . . Cyber operations is stuff outside that space, and recognizing that you could be doing that for what might be called defensive purposes.”

Congress is logjammed on legislation that would help companies -- which operate 80 percent of U.S. critical infrastructure -- defend themselves against breaches. Cyber intrusions cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year and are capable of disrupting vital services, such as electricity and transportation.

In the meantime, federal agencies are vetting an executive order that would direct the private sector on specific steps to secure its networks, but the document wouldn’t carry much enforcement weight. Industry is reluctant to participate in sharing information about threats without liability and privacy protections.

Monday’s report indicates that the new directive addresses some privacy concerns. The policy “also lays out a process to vet any operations outside government and defense networks and ensure that U.S. citizens’ and foreign allies’ data and privacy are protected and international laws of war are followed,” the Post writes.

It’s unclear whether the directive would shift more responsibility for protecting networks from the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to the Pentagon.

Now Defense is finalizing new rules of engagement for cyberspace that apparently will be informed by the new directive. According to the Post, these rules “would guide commanders when and how the military can go outside government networks to prevent a cyberattack that could cause significant destruction or casualties.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in October said that the rules “will make clear that the department has a responsibility not only to defend DoD’s networks, but also to be prepared to defend the nation and our national interests against an attack in or through cyberspace.”

A separate presidential directive in 2003 designated Homeland Security to be “a focal point” for the security of cyberspace, but since that time the department has lacked the authority to fulfill its mission, some lawmakers argue.

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