Can We (Really) Retaliate Against China?

The big news of the week was the Obama Administration’s finding that it is legal to use drones to kill Americans who go abroad and enlist in the war on terror. Less noticed, but perhaps much more important, is the Administration’s finding that the President has the power to launch a preemptive cyber attack.

This was a digital shot across the bow against China, which most recently irritated the United States by worming into the computers of The New York Times and other major publications to seek out Chinese sources who might have contributed to the reporting of the cozy, sweetheart deals available to relatives of China’s leadership.

Two observations:

  • Secretive China can always deny it is behind an attack. A preemptive (or retaliatory) cyber attack by the United States against China would ultimately have to be owned by the President (even if it were designated “covert”). This would make such an attack legally and diplomatically dicey.

  • The penetration of The Times was likely the result of a spear-phishing attack in which employees of the paper were enticed by malicious links. The Times quotes Michael Higgins, its chief security officer: “Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals.”

We need to give the President the same “plausible deniability” that China’s leaders have. And we need to quit clicking on enticing links on our office computers.

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