Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn III never said the word China in his speech on Thursday about “Cyber Strategy,” but he didn’t have to. The threat of a cyber-attack from Beijing weighs heavily on the minds of military commanders. And while officials have not said publicly who was behind the newly disclosed theft of 24,000 files from a defense contractor in March, one of the worst cyber-assaults in Pentagon history— it may well have been a Chinese operation. And even if Beijing officials were not involved in the theft, they have been implicated in other matters—so many, in fact, that federal officials are discussing publicly what do to about cyber-attacks, without saying explicitly who their number-one villain is.
Meanwhile, people in Beijing are going through an even rougher time. Government officials are nervous about the Arab Spring, which they fear will inspire their own citizens, and in response officials have been brutally cracking down on dissidents. In addition, according to security experts, officials have been ramping up their efforts to spy on the United States. “They’ve been engaging in large-scale, almost automated espionage,” says Indiana University’s David Fidler, who writes about cyber-security issues.
Beijing’s leaders have ramped up spying operations partly because they are angry at the United States, and they have been especially peeved at State Department officials; China believes that the Americans have tried to empower dissidents and to influence domestic politics. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pushed for greater access to the Web for dissidents, giving a speech in February in which she called for “a global commitment to Internet freedom,” a phrase that officials in Beijing found particularly galling. The Chinese officials resented her proclamations about the Net, which they believed are an underhanded way of trying to meddle in their affairs. “For them, this is a very aggressive interventionist policy,” Fidler explains.
Their irritation over U.S. policy is palpable, though they generally express it in an understated manner. During a meeting with a small group of Americans in Beijing in May, for example, a government official talked about the difficulties he had faced with his counterparts in Washington. “I wouldn’t say there is a lack of trust,” he told me. “I would say there is suspicion.”
However restrained he and other officials in Beijing may sound, they are expressing real frustration about their relationship with the United States, with real-world implications. “When you fight your enemy on the battlefield, you cannot be dogmatic,” a government economist in Beijing told me several weeks ago. “If you play strictly by the book, you are doomed.” He was describing their efforts to deal with domestic economic issues, but it is easy to see how this philosophy could be adopted for other arenas. It also may help to explain why some Chinese officials have begun to expand their spycraft, seeking revenge as much as intelligence through covert actions.
Meanwhile, Lynn and others in Washington are trying to figure out what to do about these developments. One of the challenges of cyber-warfare is that lines are not clearly drawn. Officials have had a hard time explaining when they believe that acts of espionage cross the line and become cyber-violence, or a strike against the United States, and yet despite the ambiguity are trying to plan their response– perhaps armed retaliation. In his speech, Lynn said Americans should prepare for the possibility that “we will have to defend against a sophisticated adversary who is not deterred from launching a cyber- attack.”
An even bigger problem is that there is no way to trace a cyber-attack back to its source: the architecture of the Internet allows people to carry out acts of sabotage and then to deny their role. A devastating attack could come from China, and nobody would know for sure, making it the perfect crime. So far Americans do not have a strategy, or a battle plan, for that.