Why a Joint ‘Cyber Security Unit’ or Treaty Probably Won’t Work

by Jim Geraghty

President Trump on Twitter yesterday morning: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded..”

President Trump on Twitter yesterday evening: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can,& did!”

The good news is that someone — H. R. McMaster, perhaps? — managed to get in front of the president and was able to explain why creating a joint “cyber security unit” with the Russian government is unlikely to work. As Marco Rubio said, “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit’.” (I suppose in both cases that those men know a lot about the subject.)

Elsewhere, Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky wonders if the concept of an international cyber-security agreement could be broadened to become a major international treaty:

Attacks on civilian services, and especially on nuclear plants, are a different matter. They are unambiguous acts of war. It is known that the U.S. is capable of them, and it would stand to reason that Russia wouldn’t let itself be outdone. Nor would China and, given that cyberweapons are relatively cheap to develop, smaller players such as Israel or North Korea. And yet there are no rules of engagement for countries that have the capability to shut off each other’s power grids or, say, traffic light systems. There’s no cyberwar equivalent of the Geneva and Hague conventions, which set rules for the treatment of civilians and ban certain kinds of cruel weapons.

In February, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2341 calling on states to arm themselves against terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure. But what about such attacks initiated by other governments, not terror groups? It’s time there were some internationally recognized principles that applied to them, defining, for example, what constitutes an attack, what response is permissible, and what can and cannot be done to civilian networks. It would be helpful to establish some international attribution mechanism; a nation’s intelligence services cannot be trusted to make an assessment that would be used to justify international sanctions.

That’s a really wonderful idea that will probably never quite work. For starters, just about every foe that the United States has fought since the Geneva Conventions were enacted has violated them, more or less without the slightest regard for them or hesitation: al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Serbian paramilitary groups, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the North Korean and Chinese armies, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany . . . in other words, a rule banning a particular weapon or act doesn’t really prevent that weapon from being used or that action from occurring by itself. Past experience tells us that many countries would sign the treaty banning certain forms of cyber-warfare and then promptly ignore it.

(Every U.S. administration ignores international treaties that it finds inconvenient. In 2011, the Obama administration approved secret arms shipments to Libyan rebels and ordered NATO air and sea forces around Libya not to interdict the cargo planes and freighters transporting weapons into Libya from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, violating United Nations resolution 1970 banning arms transfers into Libya’s civil war.)

Back at the beginning of the Obama administration, after having the chance to meet some of the country’s top cyber-security experts, I wrote, “cyber-warfare is, generally speaking, more controllable than a biological weapon, doesn’t run afoul of as many established treaties as a chemical weapon, is nowhere near as expensive and visible as a nuclear weapon, and is much harder to attribute than conventional terrorism. It is another asymmetrical tool that allows weaker countries and groups to play on the same field as the big boys.”

It’s the deniability and ability to “mask” the origin of cyber-attacks that make them particularly tempting for malefactors, rogue states, and hostile superpowers alike. It’s a chance to sucker-punch your foe anonymously. Way back when, one of those cyber-security experts compared cyber-warfare by asking “how do you win a boxing match when you’re blindfolded?” The answer was “you put the boxer in a suit of armor.” The only real way to win the fight is to harden your defenses until they’re impenetrable and no one wants to step into the ring with you.

Bershidsky concludes, “Rules of engagement are still useful: Most belligerent parties aim to act honorably and avoid being branded as war criminals. Official cyberwar rules wouldn’t stop attacks, but they would define unacceptable behavior for all concerned.”

I don’t know how much I want to bet my country’s safety on other countries’ desire to “act honorably.” Fear of retaliation always struck me as a more effective deterrent. It appears now, far too late, some Democrats are expressing this philosophy more vocally:

Obama’s former national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, says as much in a new interview for The Global Politico, telling me there’s “no doubt about it” that Obama should have publicly pinned the blame on the Russians much sooner and taken more aggressive steps to retaliate.

Now he tells us.

Did Donald Trump Jr. Have a Lot of Time on His Hands, or What?

Boy, it didn’t take much to get a personal meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Paul J. Manafort, and Jared Kushner back in June, did it?

But on Sunday, presented with The Times’s findings, [Donald Trump Jr.] offered a new account. In a statement, he said he had met with the Russian lawyer at the request of an acquaintance from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which his father took to Moscow. “After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

He said she then turned the conversation to adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, an American law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. The 2012 law so enraged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that he halted American adoptions of Russian children.

“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Mr. Trump said.

You’re telling me you can get three of the most important people in the Trump campaign, five weeks before the convention, into a face-to-face meeting just by making vague promises of damaging information about Hillary Clinton? And they were willing to take the meeting, without having any idea of what this information was, or knowing much about this woman?

Wouldn’t you figure these guys would be . . . you know, busier? Or that they or their staff would do a little more due diligence?

How many meetings did they take with people who were promising magic beans?

ISIS Is Losing Territory in both Iraq and Syria. Why Aren’t We Celebrating?

In a world where it seems like a lot is going wrong, we should recognize the victories. Back in 2015, the Iraqi Army was stumbling and bumbling, running away, and abandoning its weapons in the face of ISIS. This weekend, it just kicked ISIS out of the country’s second-largest city:

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Mosul Sunday to announce victory over ISIS forces in the city.

“Al-Abadi said the battle is settled and the remaining pockets of ISIS are encircled in the last inches of the city,” his media office said in a statement.

“It is a matter of time before we declare to our people the great victory.”

The Prime Minister said the Iraqi military is fighting to free civilians whom ISIS is “using as human shields in approximately 50 to 100 houses.”

Video showed al-Abadi walking through streets in Mosul as crowds cheered him.

Mosul is Iraq’s biggest metropolis outside of Baghdad, and gaining control of the city was one of ISIS’ most significant strategic wins.

The battle for Mosul began in October.

Meanwhile, over in Syria:

US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pushing into Raqqa on two fronts are now less than three miles apart from each other . . . 

it could still be weeks if not months before they are able to fully liberate ISIS’s once self-declared capital, according to a US defense official directly familiar with the status of the fight.

Nonetheless, the US-led coalition has begun planning for an internal security force of local recruits that could “hold” Raqqa once military operations are over.

The retaking of Raqqa and Mosul won’t be the end of the Islamic State . . . but part of their “glamour” or appeal for lack of better terms was their ability to hold territory; this is what separated them from al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Pretty soon . . . they could look like just another group of jihadis, just with better branding.

ADDENDA: Michael Rodgers disagrees with me and contends conservatives should cheer for Calexit because of the obvious disaster that an independent California would become. Er, yay?

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty