The Government is Trying to Get Serious About Cyber as a Foreign Policy Issue

What if they held a hearing and only two senators came?

Sen. Ben Cardin participates in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
Add to Briefcase
Kaveh Waddell
May 14, 2015, 4 p.m.

After a string of high-pro­file In­ter­net at­tacks dir­ec­ted at the U.S. gov­ern­ment and private sec­tor, Con­gress and the ex­ec­ut­ive branch are try­ing to get ser­i­ous about treat­ing cy­ber war­fare as a for­eign policy is­sue—es­pe­cially when it comes to ad­dress­ing threats from China and Rus­sia.

But it’s slow go­ing.

The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee ad­ded cy­ber­se­cur­ity to the port­fo­lio of one of its sub­pan­els, which had its first hear­ing Thursday. Yet only two mem­bers showed up: Col­or­ado Re­pub­lic­an Cory Gard­ner and Mary­land Demo­crat Ben Cardin, chair­man and rank­ing mem­ber of the Sub­com­mit­tee on East Asia, the Pa­cific, and In­ter­na­tion­al Cy­ber­se­cur­ity Policy, re­spect­ively.

Cy­ber­se­cur­ity has cap­tured the at­ten­tion of Con­gress this ses­sion, tak­ing cen­ter stage in hear­ings and le­gis­la­tion that fo­cus on com­pan­ies’ policies of no­ti­fy­ing cus­tom­ers about data breaches, cy­ber threat in­form­a­tion shar­ing between the gov­ern­ment and private sec­tor, and the value of built-in back­doors on con­sumer devices that would al­low the gov­ern­ment to ac­cess en­cryp­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions on iPhones and oth­er gad­gets.

But the for­eign policy angle hasn’t cap­tured Con­gress’s ima­gin­a­tion just yet.

About an hour in­to the hear­ing, Cardin left for an­oth­er com­mit­tee meet­ing, leav­ing the chair­man out­numbered by the pan­el of wit­nesses.

Mike Ro­gers, who was chair­man of the House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee un­til he left Con­gress this Janu­ary, says cy­ber­se­cur­ity is the miss­ing piece in U.S. de­fense policy. “This is the largest na­tion­al se­cur­ity we face that we have no an­swer to,” Ro­gers said at an event at the Hud­son In­sti­tute on Tues­day. “And can­didly, we’re not win­ning.”

“We are keep­ing pace, maybe, but policy-wise, we’re be­hind this prob­lem,” he said.

Chris­toph­er Paint­er, the State De­part­ment’s point per­son on cy­ber is­sues, said as much at Thursday’s hear­ing.

“While the In­ter­net has been grow­ing and evolving for a few dec­ades now, the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity has only more re­cently be­gun to fully grasp cy­ber is­sues as a for­eign policy pri­or­ity,” Paint­er said in his pre­pared testi­mony.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has treated the In­ter­net as a bat­tle­field for some time. Doc­u­ments re­vealed by former in­tel­li­gence con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden showed that the U.S. hacked in­to Chinese mo­bile phone com­pan­ies, and the U.S. is be­lieved to be be­hind the ad­vanced Stuxnet worm, which tar­geted Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar cent­ri­fuges, al­though it has nev­er ac­know­ledged be­ing in­volved.

And in­creas­ingly, U.S. com­pan­ies and gov­ern­ment have been on the re­ceiv­ing end of In­ter­net at­tacks. A hack at­trib­uted to North Korea that tar­geted Sony Pic­tures re­vealed hun­dreds of thou­sands of private emails, cost the movie stu­dio mil­lions, and drew a re­buke—and pos­sibly re­tali­ation—from the White House. A re­cent in­vest­ig­a­tion found that Rus­si­an hack­ers found their way in­to email sys­tems that be­long to the State De­part­ment and White House. And a Chinese cy­ber weapon called “Great Can­non” tar­geted a U.S. com­pany that was host­ing soft­ware used by dis­sid­ents in China.

“When it comes to the for­eign policy im­plic­a­tions of cy­ber is­sues, it is im­port­ant to be­gin with the re­cog­ni­tion that this sub­com­mit­tee and the State De­part­ment are work­ing in a still-nas­cent policy space,” Paint­er said.

As gov­ern­ment works to fill that space, Cardin called on an ex­pan­sion of pub­lic-private col­lab­or­a­tion, and poin­ted to pro­posed in­form­a­tion-shar­ing le­gis­la­tion as an ex­ample.

“Gov­ern­ment can­not do this alone. We have no choice but to work closely with the private sec­tor,” Cardin said Thursday.

Obama last month an­nounced an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der that would al­low the U.S. to re­spond to cy­ber at­tacks with fin­an­cial sanc­tions. “Cy­ber­threats pose one of the most ser­i­ous eco­nom­ic and na­tion­al se­cur­ity chal­lenges to the United States, and my ad­min­is­tra­tion is pur­su­ing a com­pre­hens­ive strategy to con­front them,” Obama said then.

Mean­while, the State De­part­ment has been ap­ply­ing its dip­lo­mat­ic ex­pert­ise to the cy­ber­world, where it’s been try­ing to get Amer­ic­an al­lies to work to­geth­er and with the U.S. to de­vel­op a set of “norms” to gov­ern how coun­tries should act on the In­ter­net, Paint­er said Thursday. The U.S. has en­gaged in “con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ures” over cy­ber is­sues to re­duce the pos­sib­il­ity of on­line con­flict.

James Lewis, dir­ect­or of the tech­no­logy pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies and an­oth­er wit­ness on Thursday’s pan­el, wel­comed the Sen­ate sub­com­mit­tee to the fray.

“Every­one and their dog is do­ing cy­ber­se­cur­ity, and I guess that’s a good thing,” he said.

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