Report: Obama Considers Hacking Syria

Former CIA operative is skeptical that hacking Syria would affect its civil war.

President Barack Obama speaks about Syria while meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Oval Office of the White House Sept. 27, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

President Obama has so far declined the option of hacking Syria’s electrical grid, missiles or air force.

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The Obama administration has considered since 2011 whether to target the computer networks of the Syrian government, but has decided against using the option thus far for fear that it could invite retaliation and escalate hacking as a type of warfare, according to reports.

President Barack Obama was not shy about using the Stuxnet virus the U.S. and Israel designed to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities, but Obama limited the scope of the hack to military targets and has so far declined the option of hacking Syria’s electrical grid, missiles or air force, The New York Times reports. The National Security Council will meet on Thursday to discuss “old and new options” for intervention in Syria, including the possible use of digital attack, The Times reports.

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Using an online attack against Syria would be less costly and entangling than sending in troops, but would be ineffective against its military ability to fight the civil war because Syria uses mostly pre-Internet weaponry, says Bob Baer, who was a secret case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency between 1976 and 1997. If the administration is considering an online attack against Syria, "it is a sign of their frustration” on how to intervene in the bloody civil war, Baer says.

“Syria is just not a wired country,” Baer says. “They have ‘70s-era weapons from the Soviets. Many of their weapons are not connected to networks. They have push-to-talk radios. Many of the commanders are independent so they also pass commands verbally.”

The Syrian Electronic Army hackers that support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been mostly limited to propaganda by disrupting the websites of news agencies in Western nations.

Rebels inside Syria are facing tougher crackdowns on digital communication from Assad and have had to find ways of communicating beyond the networks that have been blocked or monitored, Baer says.  

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The Russian and Iranian hackers that are supporting Assad could retaliate against the U.S. if Obama decided to target Syria’s networks. Russia's government may already be supporting a group of hackers to steal secrets from hundreds of companies in the U.S. and Europe, according to a report by cybersecurity research firm CrowdStrike.

The use of the Stuxnet virus by the U.S. and Israeli governments that designed it has already set a precedent for other countries that may want to hack foreign networks to advance a policy goal, cybersecurity researchers have said.

To avoid online attacks becoming destructive and potentially a risk to civilians, international agreements are being drafted by groups including the United Nations and Europe's Organization for Security and Cooperation, similar to the way nations slowly built detente to avoid the use of chemical and nuclear weapons.

The idea of hotlines used during the Cold War to avoid paranoia about nuclear activity have re-emerged between U.S., China and Russia to avoid hacking being interpreted as an act of war. If hacks originate on foreign computers those nations can call the U.S. to assure their government was not involved to offer cybersecurity information to stop the threat.