Do cyber adversaries threaten the fabric of democracy?


Do cyber adversaries threaten the very fabric of democracy or is cybersecurity so unimportant that the National Security Council can pick up the slack created by not filling the White House cyber coordinator’s position? one observer asks.

Releasing the new DHS comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said, “The cyber threat landscape is shifting in real time, and we have reached a historic turning point. Digital security is now converging with personal and physical security, and it is clear that our cyber adversaries can now threaten the very fabric of our republic itself.”

The United States is “far from success” in countering Russia’s hybrid warfare, or even convincing the public that such a threat, exists, according to a leading expert.

Lacking a positive political narrative or ideological alternative, the Kremlin’s aims are largely negative – specifically to exploit existing schisms in society and drive wedges, the German Marshall Fund’s Jamie Fly told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While the US has “only just begun the conversation” on countering gray zone tactics, Europe’s democracies are demonstrating how transparency and deterrence can build resilience.

Democracies should not “respond to disinformation with disinformation,” but “in an integrated whole-of-government way,” including multi-stakeholder partnerships between government, the private sector and civil society, said Fly, a co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Recent events appear to validate Fly’s concerns.

The news that the newly appointed national security adviser John Bolton has phased out the cybersecurity coordinator role was first reported by Politico, after the departure of Tom Bossert, cybersecurity czar, and cybersecurity coordinator Rob Joyce. And now, rather than replace either, the task of guiding and shaping US cyber policy will now fall instead to two National Security Council senior directors, THE WIRE reports.

“At a minimum, this decision and the way that it’s being communicated send the wrong signal,” says J. Michael Daniel, who served as cybersecurity coordinator under President Barack Obama and currently heads up the Cyber Threat Alliance nonprofit. “Certainly I think that our adversaries could interpret that as a signal that this administration doesn’t take the issue as seriously, regardless of if that’s actually their intent.”

Gray zone tactics are feasible for illiberal actors because technology and connectivity have opened new political spaces, said Michael Tathamm, the UK’s Deputy Head of Mission to the United States, drawing a distinction between “familiar space,” in which democracies could draw on a known playbook of instruments – military deterrence, sanctions, energy security and diversification, etc. – to counter threats, and the “unfamiliar space” of asymmetric, hybrid, cyber and other forms of political warfare. The latter raises several critical considerations, he told the CSIS forum:

  • Awareness of risks and vulnerability: we need to end denial and complacency, and recognize the strategic imperative of countering illiberal powers’ new offensive capabilities
  • Open attribution: name and shame bad actors, don’t give opponents the option of plausible deniability.
  • Collective response: an attack on one is an attack on all. We need a gray zone equivalent of NATO’s Article 5. The strong collective Western response to Russia’s Skripal poisoning clearly exceeded what the Kremlin had costed in.
  • Develop capacity and expertise, including rapid rebuttal and support for independent Russia language media.
  • ‘Joined-upness’: the West’s state agencies tend to be dispersed, but we need coordinated decision making.

The west has been on an equally “slow learning curve” in responding to China’s sharp power and its efforts to undermine the US’s Asia Pacific primacy, said Kelly Magsamen, Vice President for National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress; and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.

Effective statecraft requires renewal of the State Department and the adoption of a toolkit across various state agencies, said Linda Robinson, Senior Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation, and co-author of the recent RAND report on political warfare.

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