Who trusts Washington to keep the internet free?
The US military has appointed its first senior general to direct cyber warfare – despite fears that the move marks another stage in the militarisation of cyberspace.
The newly promoted four-star general, Keith Alexander, takes charge of the Pentagon’s ambitious and controversial new Cyber Command, designed to conduct virtual combat across the world’s computer networks. He was appointed on Friday afternoon in a low-key ceremony at Fort Meade, in Maryland.
The creation of America’s most senior cyber warrior comes just days after the US air force disclosed that some 30,000 of its troops had been re-assigned from technical support “to the frontlines of cyber warfare”.
The creation of Cyber Command is in response to increasing anxiety over the vulnerability of the US’s military and other networks to a cyber attack.
James Miller, the deputy under-secretary of defence for policy, has hinted that the US might consider a conventional military response to certain kinds of online attack.
While Alexander has tried to play down the offensive aspects of his command, the Pentagon has been more explicit, stating on Friday that Cyber Command will “direct the operations and defence of specified Department of Defense information networks [involving some 90,000 military personnel] and prepare to, when directed, conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, [to] ensure US allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.”
The complex issues facing Cyber Command were thrown into relief earlier this year when the Washington Post revealed details of a so-called “dot-mil” operation by Fort Meade’s cyber warfare unit, backed by Alexander, to shut down a “honeytrap website” set up by the Saudis and the CIA to target Islamist extremists planning attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon became convinced that the forum was being used to co-ordinate the entry of jihadi fighters into Iraq.
Despite the strong objections of the CIA, the site was attacked by the Fort Meade cyber warfare unit. As a result, some 300 other servers in the Saudi kingdom, Germany and Texas also were inadvertently shut down.