Following a tweet by Wired editor Kevin Poulsen claiming that “cyberwar is slowly becoming a Tea Party issue,” Tim Stevens responded with a post on the Forbes.com blog, The Firewall. In what way is cyberwar becoming a “Tea Party issue?” In answer to that question, he pointed to “the brazen refusal to listen to reason that is characterizing the utterances of some parties to this issue.” He continued,
Like the Tea Party movement too, the risk of believing oneâ€™s own hype is that the real issues will become hidden amongst a mass of public opinion bordering on mentally unstable groupthink. The US does indeed have cybersecurity problems but they wonâ€™t be fixed by conflating a whole range of ‘cyber’ issues and pretending they can be fixed by ramping up the projection of military power. In fact, looking from the outside, it could make them just that little bit worse.
While I completely agree, I would merely add that cyberwar is not just “like” a Tea Party issue, but that it is really becoming an issue raised by the Tea Partiers! At an April 7 rally for Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s re-election, which was led by none other than Sarah Palin, Bachmann criticized the President for the changes to U.S. nuclear strategy announced in the Nuclear Posture Review. She said,
So if in fact there is a nation who is compliant with all the rules ahead of time…if they fire against the United States, a biological weapon, a chemical weapon, or maybe a cyber attack, then we aren’t going to be firing back with nuclear weapons.
The following day, conservative commentator Sean Hannity, in an interview with former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, repeated Bachmann’s criticism, “So what he’s saying here is that the United States will not even in self-defense, if there’s a biological, a chemical attack or a crippling cyber attack of some kind, that we’re not going to respond.”
Stevens and I are in agreement that this all sounds “crazy.” But if the idea of suggesting that a nuclear response to cyberattack sounds like Tea Party crazy talk, it should also be noted that a 2009 review of U.S. policy and doctrine publications does imply “that the United States will regard certain kinds of cyberattacks against the United States as being in the same category as nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and thus that a nuclear response to certain kinds of cyberattacks (namely, cyberattacks with devastating impacts) may be possible.”  Asked by the New York Times to comment on this, U.S. defense officials would not deny that nuclear retaliation remains an option for response to a massive cyberattack. Those policy and doctrine publications remain current, and with the new Nuclear Posture Review added to the mix, confusion remains over the limits of a possible U.S. response to a large-scale cyberattack. (For more on this topic, see a previous post.)
- Cyberwar is not just “like” a Tea Party issue, it has become an issue used by Tea Partiers to criticize U.S. nuclear strategy under Obama;
- Tea Party criticism implies that nuclear response should remain on the table as a possible response to a cyberattack;
- Though this might sound crazy, current U.S. policy and doctrine publications, as well as statements by defense officials, imply that nuclear response does remain on the table as a possible reply to cyberattack;
- The publication of the new Nuclear Posture Review on top of the policy and doctrine publications mentioned above further adds to the confusion over the limits to possible U.S. responses to cyberattacks;
- Continued ambiguity and confusion further supports the recommendation by the National Academies of Science report  to clarify U.S. declaratory policy regarding responses to cyberattacks….lest the official policy of the United States Government continue to resemble the crazy ramblings of Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin.
 Owens, W. A., K. W. Dam & H. S. Lin (2009) Technology, Policy, Law, and Ethics Regarding U.S. Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press), p. 178.