After China’s visiting defense minister denied American accusations that his country is behind a growing wave of cyberattacks aimed at the United States, 79 percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders said Washington should take a tougher public stance and push Beijing on the issue.
The denials from Gen. Liang Guanglie, speaking alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a news conference earlier this month, contradict warnings by U.S. officials that the cyberattacks from China have become a serious economic and national security threat.
Considering the damage caused by those attacks, one Insider said: “China’s cyber-aggression cannot go unanswered or ignored, as it so often is.”
Given the Chinese government’s control over Internet access in the country, assertions that it has no control over cyberattacks emanating from its territory are “laughable,” one Insider said. “The U.S. government should push back—and push back hard.”
Such pressure would be long overdue, one Insider said. “The U.S. intelligence community very publicly acknowledged [China]’s cyberespionage and attack activities ... yet hasn’t demonstrated the political will to dissuade, deter, or compel them from continuing. If not addressed, what’s the disincentive for China—or any other country reading into the tea leaves—to stop or even escalate?”
Another Insider noted that cyberattacks are not only the new form of espionage, they are a new form of warfare. “The U.S. must take a tougher public stance against Chinese and other hackers and develop the strategies and defense mechanisms to make such attacks more difficult. We should also reserve the option to respond in kind to cyberattacks affecting our critical infrastructure.”
Another 21 percent of those polled said public confrontation would be counterproductive in Beijing’s case. “Behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at increased cooperation and confidence-building will yield some progress over time,” one Insider said.
“Come on, does anyone really believe that the [National Security Agency’s] Cyber Command is not doing the same or worse to China?” another Insider asked. “Cyber war/defense is the next giant gravy train for the obese security-industrial complex, hence all the overblown hype.”
Insiders were more evenly divided when asked if the threat posed by al-Qaida has changed in the past year.
Though the Obama administration reports that it has crippled al-Qaida, U.S. intelligence officials recently helped to thwart the second attempted bombing of an American-bound airliner by the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. A slim majority of Insiders (51 percent) said the threat from al-Qaida-inspired attacks has remained about the same since Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid of his compound in Pakistan last year.
“The threat is still out there, but it has changed, becoming more dispersed,” one Insider said. “While the capacity for large-scale attacks has probably declined, the overall threat has remained about the same.”
Al-Qaida is definitely not crippled, but the United States’ ability to mount difficult intelligence operations against it appears to be far better than it was 10 years ago, one Insider said. “As always, the key to defeating terrorism will be in fixing the social conditions (high unemployment, illiteracy among others) that spawn it.”
Another 42 percent, however, said the threat has declined. An Insider noted that drone and other strikes — based for the most part on cooperation with friendly intelligence services — have decimated Qaida leadership, disrupted scores of operations, and demoralized remaining fighters.
“The Arab awakening also helps, by offering an alternative way for young Arabs to take action to oust corrupt autocrats. Stemming [the] long-term terrorist threat requires skillful diplomacy to enhance ties with friendly leaders while supporting peaceful political evolution,” the Insider continues. “Aggressive intelligence operations will remain vital to snare miscreants. The role for U.S. military support to counterterrorism will diminish.”
Only 7 percent of the Insiders surveyed believe the threat has grown. “We have serious problems in Yemen; al-Qaida is active in northeast Africa and south of the Sahara. In other words, its franchises are thriving,” the Insider said. “We have a long-term challenge that we cannot ignore.”
1. China's visiting defense minister denied long-standing accusations that Beijing is behind a growing wave of cyberattacks against U.S. military and government networks. Given the damage caused by those attacks, should the United States take a tougher public stance and push the issue with China?
- Yes 79%
- No 21%
“Call a spade a spade. If private diplomacy does not work, then we have no choice but to go public. Not only does China’s behavior harm the U.S. economy, it adversely affects American lives.”
“But only in the context of seeking a broad international regime on cyberspace rules of the road. We have not been proactive enough, because our agencies fear constraints on our own offensive capabilities. That only encourages the rest to move toward their own offensive capabilities.”
“This issue must be (and is being) pushed by the State Department, not only with China, but many others.”
“Chinese (and Russian) security organs are up to their eyeballs in orchestrating cyberexploitation and attacks against internal groups seeking democratic change, and against foreign governments and corporations. A treaty to limit cyberwarfare would be unverifiable and breed a false sense of security. Instead, the West should publicly expose more of their actions, highlight the negative effect on attracting foreign investment, and raise concerns in international fora. The United States has many interests at stake with China (and Russia), however, and cannot make cyber the most important.”
“Yes, but the U.S. shouldn’t expect it to do any good. Worse, we are behind the curve in this new domain of warfare.”
“This issue is like terrorism in the late 1990s—just waiting for something really disastrous to happen.”
“Chinese actions in cyberspace are as belligerent as they are intolerable. The extent of the long-term damage being done to almost every segment of our nation by these persistent exfiltrations of our most critical data sets is unquantifiable.”
“Attribution in cyber is hard—but it isn’t so hard that we can’t definitively establish China’s culpability. In this overwhelmingly offense-dominant arena, establishing deterrence is crucial. It’s about time we started.”
“First, get tough privately. China digs in in response to public criticism.”
“Public confrontation will be counterproductive. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at increased cooperation and confidence-building will yield some progress over time.”
“This is a complicated issue. Defensive, offensive, and collection operations overlap. Attribution is difficult. Nothing useful would be accomplished through more-heated public debate at this time.”
“Without citing verifiable specifics, there is no gain in rhetorical denunciations. Quiet but forceful diplomacy is in order.”
“Forcing the United States to go public would limit its flexibility and options. Countermeasures would be more effective if kept away from public emotions.”
2. The Obama administration claims to have crippled al-Qaida, but U.S. officials just thwarted the second attempted bombing of an American airliner by its affiliate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Since Osama bin Laden was killed, has the threat from al-Qaida-inspired terrorism grown, declined, or remained about the same?
- About the same 51%
- Declined 42%
- Grown 7%
About the same
“The threat from AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] was well known prior to his death and continues to drive intelligence operations and drone strikes. Don’t expect any of that to change.”
“Osama had largely grown irrelevant by the time of his death.”
“Al-Qaida central [is] in decline (but still dangerous) due to sustained military and counterterrorism efforts in the [Pakistani] Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but their affiliates still pose a significant threat and demand we maintain our CT op-tempo to keep them on their back feet.”
“Bin Laden had long ago ceased directing and initiating operations — as distinct from exhorting others to conduct them — and so there is little reason to expect his death would have made an appreciable difference in the incidence of terrorism.”
“Not to knock the Obama administration’s efforts, which have legitimately targeted bad guys, [but] you cannot kill or eradicate a tactic. As long as rage and humiliation grip much of the Islamic world — mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with the United States or its policies — the threat of al-Qaida-inspired terrorism will remain.”
“It was miniscule before bin Laden was killed, and it’s miniscule now. At some point we’ll recall that we sing about our country being ‘the home of the brave’ and start acting like it.”
“The threat from al-Qaida has changed. It is less of a centralized organization, and now more of a brand that inspires others.”
“That’s the trouble with franchised organizations. Ray Kroc is dead, too, but I still got my McMuffin this morning.”
“Policy may be working here. The capability is seriously eroded, the groups dispersed, and the chase is active.”
“The statistics do not lie: Al-Qaida has launched far fewer attacks in the year after the death of Osama bin Laden than in the years prior. One failed bomber doesn’t change that.”
“The larger threat has declined, but spin-off groups will continue to punch and jab at our defenses until a successful attack occurs.”
“The threat of large-scale attacks like 9/11 is less likely, but [Qaida] affiliates are adapting to their more-constrained operating environment. This [latest] successful operation to thwart [an] airline bombing attack shows AQ’s continued fascination with airplanes and resolve to attack the West. Al-Qaida, the movement, has morphed and dispersed geographically and has inspired the homegrown variety that is far harder to detect.”
“But only reduced somewhat, due to the loss of Osama and some other leaders.”
“While al-Qaida leaders have a sharply reduced shelf life now, the ideology of hate is unfortunately alive and well. Terrorism, like all conflict, will not be won or lost with military action, it must be solved with a diplomatic solution, which we are no closer to achieving today than we were 10 years ago.”
“Obama continues to claim success based on the intelligence achievements of the Bush administration. But by killing rather than capturing al-Qaida operatives — which has been his bizarrely successful way of avoiding the human-rights criticisms directed at the Bush administration — he ensures that we will have less actionable intelligence in the future.”
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, and Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the May 15, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.