The Pentagon's new Cyber Command is seeking authority to carry out global network attacks to protect U.S. interests, prompting concern from government lawyers over the legality of offensive operations. Cyber Command, whose creation was ordered last summer and which became operational earlier this month, consolidates offensive and defensive operations under Army General Keith Alexander, who also heads the National Security Agency (NSA). GEN Alexander seeks sufficient room to operate along “the full spectrum” of operations in cyberspace, which could include shutting down part of an opponent's computer network to preempt a cyber-attack against a U.S. target, changing a line of code in an adversary's computer to render malicious software harmless, or even engaging in operations that could destroy, disrupt
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or degrade targeted computers or networks.
Amid concerns about other agencies' conflicting zones of responsibility, senior policymakers and administration lawyers are considering limiting the military's offensive computer operations to war zones such as Afghanistan, in part because the CIA argues that covert operations outside the battle zone are its responsibility, and the State Department is concerned about diplomatic backlash.
Such proposed capability presents a particularly delicate issue because of the unpredictability of outcomes in some operations. For example, an action against a target in one country could unintentionally disrupt servers in another, as happened when a cyber-warfare unit under Alexander's command disabled a jihadist Web site in 2008. Moreover, in addition to legal concerns about offensive international attacks, policymakers are also struggling to define Cyber Command's role in defending critical domestic networks without violating Americans' privacy.