Cyber Cold War gets its battle plans

President Bush has signed a directive that formally kicks off what intelligence reporters have been chronicling for months: The National Security Agency, the nation’s electronic eavesdropping agency, will take a new, presumably aggressive role in responding to Internet-based attacks against government agencies.

The Washington Post broke news of Bush’s directive on Friday, and the Baltimore Sun had been following this in considerable detail for months. Of particular interest is the distinctly military character of this new plan, known simply as the “cyber initiative” inside government. According to the Post, once the NSA determines that a hostile nation or Internet threat is targeting a government system, the Pentagon can strike back.

The Pentagon can plan attacks on adversaries’ networks if, for example, the NSA determines that a particular server in a foreign country needs to be taken down to disrupt an attack on an information system critical to the U.S. government. That could include responding to an attack against a private-sector network, such as the telecom industry’s, sources said.

Don’t miss the importance of that last sentence. Our government’s critical and sensitive information systems run on or are dependent upon privately-owned networks. An attack on AT&T, under this new initiative, can constitute an attack on the nation. The military’s cyber attack capabilities are something of an open secret. Commanders love not to talk about them in on-the-record interviews.

This new initiative is meant to send a signal to our chief Cyber Cold War adversary, China: “We are going on the offensive.” This campaign will, in some ways, be more significant than the war on terrorism. It will cost billions of dollars, implicate just as many of our most important policies–from privacy to secrecy to the authorities of the intelligence agencies–and ultimately could be a prelude to more overt, off-line conflicts. Settle in. This will be a long ride.