As the United States government looks to codify its stance on cyber warfare, President Barack Obama will have authority to order pre-emptive strikes if officials detect imminent digital threats from overseas. Obama's administration has been conducting a review of so-called "cyberweapons" at its disposal over the last several months in an effort to better protect government interests and vital US infrastructure from online attacks.
Whatever policies are established will be highly classified and hidden from public eyes — unwelcome news for critics that have questioned the sense of urgency surrounding cybercrime. It's expected that the most severe cyber strikes will require the president's direct blessing, however. Speaking to The New York Times, an anonymous administration official said there would be "very, very few instances" where decisions fall to someone beneath Obama. Thus far in his presidency, and contrasting with his controversial stance on drone surveillance, Obama has largely refrained from major web assaults. One exception has been the "Stuxnet" cyber attack carried out on Iran's nuclear facilities — the Times previously published an in-depth report outlining US complicity in that effort.
The buck stops at President Obama
The exhaustive review comes as security concerns continue to amplify across the web following recent, complex hacks targeting various US newspapers and companies like Twitter. Yet it's unlikely the Pentagon will be given authority to defend such businesses, leaving that responsibility to the Department of Homeland Security and FBI. But the military will have the ability to retaliate against significant attacks. Unfortunately it's not at all clear what sort of hacks would fall under that umbrella; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said a threat would need to resemble a “cyber 9/11" to justify any pre-emptive strike.