The country’s second highest-ranking military officer discredited a New York Times article claiming that the Pentagon might launch a nuclear strike on another country in response to a cyberattack.
“That is just fundamentally not true,” Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva told reporters Tuesday, according to a Military.com report. While he does not call out TheNYT specifically, he was arguing against information that first appeared in a Times report published earlier this month.
Citing a leaked copy of the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), TheNYT asserted in mid-January that “a newly-drafted United States nuclear strategy that has been sent to President Trump for approval would permit the use of nuclear weapons to respond to a wide range of devastating but non-nuclear attacks on American infrastructure, including … the most crippling kind of cyberattacks.”
A strike on the U.S. via cyberspace would not warrant a nuclear strike, Selva said. “The idea that we would resort to a nuclear attack based on cyber is actually not supported by the document,” he explained,adding, “We reserve the right to use nuclear weapons when our national interests, our population, our infrastructure are attacked with significant consequence.”
“This will,” Selva told reporters, “include but is not limited to non-nuclear strategic strikes on our population, our infrastructure that are our allies and partners, or the command and control systems and indications of warning that are important to our detection of an attack.”
“We never said cyber,” he explained.
TheNYT report acknowledged that the leaked copy of the NPR, first released by The Huffington Post, “does not explicitly say that a crippling cyberattack against the United States” is a non-nuclear attack that would merit a nuclear response, but the paper read between the lines with the help of “former and current officials” to run the headline “Pentagon suggests countering devastating cyberattacks with nuclear arms.”
In fairness to TheNYT, the language is noticeably ambiguous. “We will hedge against the potential rapid growth or emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats, including chemical, biological, cyber, and large-scale conventional aggression,” the draft of the review suggests. Rather than indicate the U.S. would respond to a cyberattack with a nuclear strike, the Nuclear Posture Review may instead suggest that the U.S. intends to secure its nuclear force against growing threats in cyberspace, given that the NPR notes that the “emergence of offensive cyber warfare capabilities has created new challenges for and potential vulnerabilities” for the U.S. nuclear triad.
Selva stressed that context is key, explaining that the U.S., as has always been the case, has the right to respond if an attack kills Americans in vast numbers or devastates critical systems but does not intend to use nuclear force in response to a foreign cyberattack on the U.S.
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