National Security

How Emperor Alexander Militarized American Cyberspace

And why the White House needs to split up the “deep state” of the NSA and Cyber Command.

The militarization of American cyber policy did not happen overnight. What began with a healthy balance of military and civilian interests has, over the course of the past 10 years, devolved into the largely exclusive domain of secretive military and intelligence groups bent on developing America's offensive and intelligence capabilities in cyberspace at the expense of other, longer-term national security interests.

Of course, the Department of Defense has been interested in military applications of the Internet (and cyberspace more broadly) for more than two decades, especially since 1991 when it used dominant information awareness to tear through the feared Iraqi army. In 1998, the Pentagon set up the first joint "cyber command," which I helped create, while that same year the FBI and Department of Commerce stood up sister offices to fight cybercrime and protect America's civilian infrastructure. In those early years, there was a healthy balance between the military and other executive departments and a high degree of cooperation. 

Moreover, there was a vigorous debate on the relative merits of offense and defense. Policymakers realized the Internet allowed nations to attack one another anonymously and with impunity; the presiding view was that this was a fatal risk for America that demanded prioritizing U.S. defenses. 

This balance lasted less than five years, until the standup in 2003 of the Department of Homeland Security swept up most of the existing civilian organizations and talent into a department which a decade later is still finding its voice.  The resulting chaos meant the Pentagon -- and its captive intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency -- became the only organization with significant institutional and cyber power left standing, especially as fear of terrorism meant ever-more risk taking, fatter budgets, and stifling classification.  

Gen. Michael Hayden, then director of the NSA, positioned his organization to live up to this responsibility -- but his successor, Gen. Keith Alexander, raced into the gap and positioned NSA as the savior of American cyberspace.

Few military or intelligence professionals, then or now, have had any experience outside the closed world of national security. So this well-meaning group of patriotic insiders did what came most naturally: They classified everything and prioritized one national security goal -- more spying and attack capabilities -- above all others. Since classification levels permitted few, if any, outside voices, the seeming consensus helped convince U.S. policymakers to adopt General Alexander's "collect it all" strategy and create a new U.S. Cyber Command to streamline military cyber power. With Congress and the White House convinced (or captured), who could, or would, argue with the all-powerful "Emperor Alexander"?

Just as in 1998, the Internet still allowed nations to attack one another anonymously and with impunity. Only now, a new generation of military officers and policymakers see this not as a fatal risk but as a fantastic opportunity

It could have been a priority to ensure the Internet is safe and secure for U.S. citizens and commerce; this certainly has been the lofty rhetoric in the president's speeches and in published strategies. But the unfortunate fact (obvious everywhere except in Washington, D.C.) is that the military's naturally aggressive views dominate U.S. government ideas of how to conduct itself in cyberspace.

Today, the State Department has perhaps two or three dozen diplomats bravely trying to convince the world that the United States wants peace and an open, secure Internet. Unfortunately, at Fort Meade, headquarters of NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, there are more people with vastly larger budgets working towards opposite ends. The diplomats work towards America's stated priorities while the spies and warfighters create their own truths in the network. With powerful budgets and authorities, they can seize ground in cyberspace, infiltrating networks around the world with little friction from the Beltway bureaucracy. 

For example, U.S. diplomats were leading the fight to create norms that make Chinese espionage beyond the pale, while all along the NSA was infiltrating not just U.S. adversaries, but allies as well.

The U.S. government publicly claims to want a relatively borderless Internet to grow digital economies and nurture cyber culture, yet coerced U.S. companies to give NSA and U.S. Cyber Command the "high ground" of cyberspace by tapping information flows and tampering with American tech products. Other nations are already shunning these companies' products, convinced they were fronts for the NSA all along. 

When designing and launching the most sophisticated and disruptive cyberattack ever, the autonomous Stuxnet intended to cripple Iran's nuclear centrifuge program, the officials involved reportedly found it "ironic" that the United States was betraying all its fine language on wanting a safe and secure Internet. 

Other nations had already been exploring their own military options for cyberspace, but once they saw the United States putting so much effort into these kinds of attacks and spying, they piled on, too. Now Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, Iran, China, Russia, Norway, and Spain are getting in the act; any self-respecting military needs to boast of having its own cyber organization. 

To rebalance America's national security priorities in cyberspace, the administration must coordinate and publish an honest and open cyberstrategy. If President Obama truly wants a safe and secure cyberspace, he needs to be upfront about how this priority conflicts with the emphasis put on offensive and exploitation capabilities. He did this in the drone debate and it is overdue here.

The departure of General Alexander in early 2014 will help, but the White House should go further and split the "deep state" of NSA and Cyber Command to ensure no one officer ever again has such a dominant voice and monopoly of power.

Within the White House, to be more prominent advocates for a stronger defense, the president should plus-up his staff in the National Economic Council and Cyber Directorate of the National Security Council. However, with so much power concentrated in the directorates for defense and intelligence, he ought to appoint an independent senior official overseeing all cyber policy with far more power, policy oversight, and budget authority than today.

America's policymakers have forgotten that our true center of cyber power is not Fort Meade, but our private sector: the companies that create and maintain cyberspace and the companies and citizens that fill it with the content and commerce the world wants. This is a world where cyberspace underlies American prosperity, aided by U.S. policies that put commerce first. 

Rebalancing America's national security priorities away from the military and bringing them in line with our true power will give the United States -- and users of cyberspace everywhere -- a more stable and secure future.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


A Bad Time to Kill a Bad Man?

Why the killing of the Pakistani Taliban's No. 1 might cause a lot more pain for Pakistan than the CIA counted on.

Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistan's most prolific killer, was eliminated on Nov. 1 in a CIA drone strike on his vehicle as it moved through the North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Since 2009, Mehsud had led the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the jihadist umbrella group that has waged war against the Pakistani state, seeking to not only punish Islamabad for its cooperation with the United States in the war on terror, but also impose its own radical version of shariah over Pakistan's 190 million people.

Mehsud's organization is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians, politicians, security personnel, and tribal leaders since its founding in 2007. And for that alone, it would be reasonable to assume that his targeted killing would be met with a near-universal positive reaction in Pakistan, despite the strong opposition in the country to U.S. drone attacks.

While many Pakistanis have welcomed the elimination of Mehsud -- whose sadistic excesses even rankled fellow militants such as his once-deputy Wali-ur-Rehman -- there has also been considerable condemnation of the drone strike. The opposition to Mehsud's killing largely rests on the timing of the U.S. attack as well as the authority of Washington to conduct strikes on Pakistani soil -- an issue that has acquired renewed salience with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's call for an end to drone attacks during his visit to Washington last month.

Many Pakistani politicians -- including from the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) -- claimed that the drone strike sabotaged the prospects of a peace deal with the TTP. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a senior figure in the party, claimed that a delegation of religious scholars were set to meet with representatives of Mehsud in exploratory peace talks. In a press conference on Nov. 2, Nisar asked why the United States had not targeted Mehsud before when he allegedly had crossed into Afghanistan on multiple occasions, and said that he found it curious that Mehsud had never come up in discussions with American officials during his government's first four months in office, but that the U.S. ambassador had raised the issue of targeting Mehsud all of a sudden in a recent meeting.

It would be a mistake to reflexively dismiss Nisar's protests as a manifestation of the perfidy or double-speak many associate with Pakistani officials, who have in the past publicly spoken out against drone attacks while supporting them privately. The killing of Mehsud has made the PML-N government, already under severe criticism for its handling of the economy and terrorism, look impotent. In recent weeks, it appears to have invested quite a bit of energy in arranging exploratory talks with the TTP. And on a number of occasions, it had suggested that Washington would give Islamabad space to engage the TTP in talks, including by being more restrained in its conducting of drone attacks.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has been conspicuously silent. No serving military official has spoken on the record about the killing of Mehsud and off-the-record quotes have been sparing in detail. But there is some indication that the Pakistani military may have condoned, if not actively supported, the drone strike.

Retired Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a former military spokesman with close ties to the current army chief, appeared on a major Pakistani talk show on Nov. 1 and spoke out in favor of the attack on Mehsud, providing a detailed account of the terrorist's crimes against the people of Pakistan. His appearance on television could be part of a military effort to tilt public opinion in favor of the strike without having to publicly endorse the controversial CIA drone strikes on Pakistani soil. And just days before the attack on Mehsud, the Pakistani Defense Ministry, whose day-to-day operations are run by a recently retired lieutenant general, issued an unbelievable report to parliament claiming that there were zero civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks in 2012. The report had the appearance of an attempt to sanitize the drone campaign just before a big hit with the tacit support of the Pakistani military.

The military has chafed at the prospect of peace talks with the TTP, and for much of this year the Pakistani army has, in fact, expressed its discomfort with the conciliatory, if not apologetic, approach of center-right and Islamist politicians toward the TTP. In May, the now-outgoing army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called on Pakistan's politicians and general public to support the fight against militants who, in his words, seek to impose their "distorted ideology" on Pakistan by force. In August, he had said that "bowing down" to militants is no solution to terrorism. And in September, after the TTP killed a major general and threatened to kill Kayani next, the army chief said that, though giving the dialogue process with militants a chance was "understandable," there should be no "misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms."

Indirectly rebuking pro-talks politicians, such as Imran Khan, who have claimed that military operations have failed to resolve the issue of terrorism, Kayani said that the army "has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists." And last month, as the PML-N pushed forward with talks with the TTP, despite the pace of terrorist attacks continuing unabated, Kayani once again reluctantly embraced talks with militants, and -- in an expression of concern over the compromises conservative politicians might make with jihadists -- stressed that any negotiations must take place within the bounds of the constitution. Having lost thousands of soldiers in its fight with the TTP, the Pakistani army is in no mood to make peace with the militant group -- and the CIA strike that killed Mehsud could have provided the Pakistani Army with a way to scuttle the civilian government's outreach to the TTP.

Undoubtedly, Hakimullah Mehsud's hands were drenched with the blood of Pakistanis. Duplicitous and extreme even among extremists, talks with Mehsud were bound to fail. But the current democratically elected government, though misguided in its choice to engage the TTP leader, should have been given a chance to fail. Instead, the killing of Mehsud -- just as preliminary talks were set to begin -- has allowed some Pakistani politicians to blame the United States for their failure, and the mass murderer has even been branded by some Islamists as a "martyr."

There is good reason to have let the dialogue process reach a natural death. Public support for Pakistani military operations has waned considerably from its peak in 2009. Voters in two of the country's provinces brought to power parties that had campaigned in favor of talks with the TTP. A better approach might have been to allow the talks with Mehsud to go forward and fail. The proving of the TTP's bad intentions would have given the civilian government the justification and public support to order military operations against the group in North Waziristan. Alternatively, the civilian government should have been brought on board in what appears to have been a decision by the United States -- possibly with the direct or indirect support of the Pakistani military -- to target Mehsud, allowing Islamabad to recalibrate and publicly state that it would be willing to speak with other TTP commanders, but not Mehsud.

But now, the killing of Mehsud has exacerbated divisions within Pakistan's polity, and probably also between its civilian and military leadership. The deepening polarization in Pakistan over the question of how to deal with the TTP advances the designs of the terrorist group. Prior to the general elections in May, the TTP mainly targeted Pakistan's secular parties, seeking to divide them and the center-right and Islamist parties. Since the election of center-right parties at the federal level and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the TTP has tried to foment divisions between these parties and the military, saying that it would resume negotiations with Islamabad if the new, center-right governments in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa developed a stance on the war on terror independent from the military. The Taliban strategy has proved effective, with the political class spending much of its time lobbing accusations and invective at one another. Pro-talks politician Imran Khan has been called "Taliban Khan" by his detractors, while he and others have derided the anti-talks voices as "liberal fascists." Similarly, more latent tensions seem to exist between the civilians and the military on the issue of talking to the TTP.

Pakistan will be a safer place when its democratically elected civilian government authors and owns a national security strategy that provides a comprehensive game plan for ridding the country of the terrorists that harm Pakistanis and those outside its borders. Such a strategy would have to go far beyond militant leadership decapitation, clearing operations, and open-ended calls for talks. It would require figuring out not only how to calibrate the use of both talking and fighting, but also simultaneously building the state's capacity to offer justice and security in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan. Militancy in Pakistan thrives in large part on a broken justice system, compromised and under-equipped police services, and a border region with Afghanistan that is governed under an archaic British-era law that engages in collective punishment. Institutional reform is required nationwide. Pakistan's anti-terrorism courts have high acquittal rates, mainly due to the absence of a witness protection program. Its detention facilities are highly insecure, with two major prison breaks in as many years. In the end, the best antidote to anti-state insurgency is a strong, legitimate state that implements the rule of law.

Militant leadership decapitation alone has proved to be limited in effectiveness in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While al Qaeda has been weakened in Pakistan, militant groups native to both countries have endured the targeted killings of their commanders. The TTP's founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA drone strike in 2009, but the TTP -- which had also been hammered by Pakistani military operations that year -- managed a resurgence, extending its tentacles deep into the country's southern port city of Karachi and has even developed ties with Afghan intelligence.

Even as Islamabad reached out to Hakimullah Mehsud, the militant leader did not shy away from attacking the Pakistani state. But with its leader now gone, the TTP will likely have to make more ferocious demonstrations of its wrath. In the short term, Pakistan will probably see a surge in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. There will likely be more fighting among the major parties and between civilian and military officials, as well, over the question of how to move forward and bring an end to the terror and the drone attacks that Pakistani officials have said will wind down soon. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must appoint a new army chief by the end of this month, and candidates include generals with far less restraint than the current army chief, Gen. Kayani. Hakimullah Mehsud may be dead, but his killing could haunt Pakistan for the months, if not years, to come.