Why did President Obama destroy plausible deniability on cyber warfare?
President Obama said on Friday it was “wrong” and “offensive” to suggest that White House staffers purposefully released classified national security information. Yet The New York Times recently published firsthand reports of President Obama’s approval of the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iran.
Is President Obama suggesting that The Times concocted these reports? Probably not. David Sanger, the Times reporter in question, recently defended the administration on NPR’s “The Takeaway,” saying that administration officials only spoke to him after he learned the information on his own. According to Sanger, he contacted Obama’s staff to tell them he was going to run his account, at which point administration staffers agreed to speak with him.
This practice is commonplace in political journalism. And President Obama and his staff will likely use it to claim his administration did not “leak” any information; they simply confirmed what Sanger already knew.
But when it comes to Stuxnet and Iran, this explanation is insufficient and unacceptable. The world community has long suspected that the United States was responsible for, or complicit in, the Stuxnet attacks (it was previously conceivable that the operation was led by Israel, with the U.S. playing a supporting development role).
The White House should never have acknowledged it was responsible for the attack. Why? Two words: plausible deniability.
When it comes to national security, there is a big difference between acknowledging something that’s well-known and denying it in order to maintain plausible deniability. Take Israel’s nuclear weapons. The world has known for more than 40 years about Israel’s nukes. Israel has, in recent times, even appeared to acknowledge this fact with a wink and a nod.
But Israel has never officially admitted to having a nuclear arsenal. According to author Avner Cohen, the Israeli government has not spoken publicly on nuclear weapons since 1960. Why? What’s the point of refusing to acknowledge what everyone knows? Because officially acknowledging something of such grave significance can have equally grave consequences.
By publicly admitting to having a nuclear program, Israel would likely have lost aid and support from previous U.S. governments (especially in the ’60s and ’70s). It would have received numerous rebukes and attacks from the international community (in the days before this became commonplace). And, most importantly, acknowledging its weapons program would have set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that threatened both Israeli and regional security.
It’s possible to argue that Israel’s silent admission of nuclear weapons has spurred Iran to develop its own weapons program. But this is a relatively recent development. Can you imagine what the reaction of countries like Egypt and Syria would have been if Israel had acknowledged having a nuclear weapons program two years after it built one? Well, this is exactly what the Obama administration has done on Stuxnet.
As many writers and politicians, Republican and Democrat, have noted, the Obama administration’s decision to take credit for Stuxnet will have serious and long-lasting effects on our national security. By publicly acknowledging the use of this program, the U.S. has given ammunition to adversaries who wish to use this technology against us. We’ve also let the enemy know what to expect and what we’re capable of. The moral high ground and plausible deniability are not petty things. Now that we’ve admitted to using a cyber weapon against Iran, what will we say to China or Russia when they use one against us? The line in the sand on government cyber warfare has been crossed, and there is no turning back.
For those who don’t find my argument convincing, I pose a simple question: What possible advantage was there to releasing this information? If, as the Obama administration claims, this information was already public knowledge, what did we gain by publicly confirming it? That’s a question President Obama must answer.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.