Why the US doesn’t use cyber-weapons to attack its enemies more often

June 30, 2013
June 30, 2013

The US government doesn’t like to talk about it, but it has developed an arsenal of cyber-weapons that can be used to attack adversaries. Why doesn’t it deploy computer worms and other technologies for disrupting enemies’ networks and computer-controlled physical infrastructure more often in conflicts around the world?

Mike McConnell, vice chairman at government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and former head of the National Security Agency and US director of National Intelligence, says the US has the best capabilities in the world for cyber-attacking and “can do some pretty significant damage if we choose to.”

But the government hesitates because it’s wary of making itself an even bigger target for cyber-attacks against the US, according to McConnell. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival (co-organized by Quartz’s sister publication The Atlantic), he elaborated:

“Let’s say you take an action. We depend on this stuff more than anyone else. We’re more vulnerable than anybody else in the world. If we could put a map up here of the world with the US on center and we put bandwidth on top of it, it’s a bell curve. Most of the communications in the world flow through the United States and we are the biggest user and beneficiary. So there’s a great hesitancy to use anything in a cyber context because it’s relatively easy to punch back in a pretty aggressive way.

So every discussion I’ve ever participated in is ‘You’ve got some options. Well, let’s just hold those aside and consider other options.’ But we could do major damage.”

McConnell, who’s credited with building US capabilities for fighting cyber threats, notes that the purpose of the US Cyber Command unit of the Defense Department is both offense and defense. “And the offense will get a lot of attention,” he adds.

The US reportedly has used cyber-weapons against Iran’s nuclear enrichment efforts as part of a program code-named “Olympic Games.” The Stuxnet computer worm developed by the US and Israel reportedly succeeded in disrupting the centrifuges Iran was using to purify uranium in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. (Retired US general James Cartwright is now reportedly the target of a Justice Department investigation into the leaking of information about Stuxnet to the press.)

You can watch McConnell’s comments about US reluctance to cyber-attack in the video below:

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