It took a while, probably for the focus groups and polls to render a judgement, but the Obama administration has grudgingly decided to confront China over its recent hacks resulting in the theft of the personal information of 20 million Americans from the database of the Office of Personnel. It was a perplexing delay and perhaps a bit ironic that an administration which has presided over the greatest loss of privacy for its citizenry, must now retaliate against brazen cyber attacks. It makes one shudder to think how long it would take them to respond to other sorts of aggression- an area in which President Obama has shown reticence to confront and weakness in responding to past predicaments.
Obama has had enough of Chinese hacking
The type of response and its scope is, according to senior officials, still anyone’s guess. The only thing that is clear is that the magnitude of the hack warrants a response of some kind and range from the symbolic to the significant. emblematically, the administration could oust selected Chinese diplomats, realistically agents, from the country. A more measured answer might include sanctions, a move usually not favored by this cautious, some would say, feckless president who worries about an escalation of the hacking and perhaps an impediment to a hoped- for legacy builder in a Pacific trade agreement.
It appears this cautious approach is in contrast to advice from senior advisors- one of whom allowed the anonymous comments that, ’’ (The administration) needs to disrupt and deter what our adversaries are doing in cyber space, and that means you need a full range of tools to tailor a response.” If history is any guide, a response will be tardy and tepid as President Obama has shown a penchant for not putting all the options on the table in past conflicts such as Russia, Syria and , most recently, with Iran over the nuclear issue. And, as is also often the case, it is taboo to even mention the name of the country at fault for the incursion- in this case China over cyber attacks. Except for national director of intelligence, James Clapper, who iterated curiously that China should ’’be applauded for what they did.”
From this observation from a surveillance hawk, one can only construe that he favors national campaigns that promote even greater cyber domination. No surprise, that. But over recent days, both Mr. Clapper and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and commander of the military’s Cyber Command, have hinted at the internal debate by noting that unless the United States finds a way to respond to the attacks, they are bound to escalate. Mr. Clapper predicted that the number and sophistication of hacking aimed at the United States would worsen “until such time as we create both the substance and psychology of deterrence.”
China presents a prickly proposition regarding retaliation. Unlike Russia, North Korea, and Iran, it is not an isolated or rogue nation but a formidable economic force, not to mention the chief global procurer of the US’s massive debt. Not that they would call the loans- that would be like shooting themselves in the foot- but they could impose tariffs or expel our “diplomats” and in general make life more difficult than it already is for US corporations attempting to gain a toe- hold there.
The legal route is fraught with even more peril and, in the past, has been rendered toothless. It wasn’t too long ago that the Justice Department indicted five members of China’s military for theft of intellectual property from American companies. But nothing will come of it if the culprits don’t travel to the US. Moreover, legal proceedings open up the possibility of exposing US intelligence secrets and operations inside China which include early warning defensive devices against cyber espionage.
One retaliatory topic under discussion though is likely to delight Internet users and techies abroad. That debate is centered on breaching the infamous Great Firewall- China’s key censorship tool against public dissent. Just the prospect of this is enough to rattle the foundations of Beijing’s political power structure at a time it’s already putting out brushfires and dealing with the stock market meltdown there. This might be the best tack to take but does Obama have the guts to do anything which may tarnish his legacy like the torpedoing of the Pacific trade agreement? We’ll see.