A Cyber Battlefield, Shrouded in Secrecy

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On January 5, Fordham Law’s Center on National Security hosted a panel discussion and screening of lauded director Alex Gibney’s documentary Zero Days, an investigation into the secretive and timely topic of cyber warfare.

The panel, moderated by center director Karen Greenberg, included Gibney, best known for his Academy Award-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side; David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; Robert Knake, the Whitney Shepardson senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Marcus Baram, the senior news editor of Fast Company.

Gibney began the discussion with an introduction to Zero Days, a film he conceived after developing an interest in the Stuxnet malware attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility in 2010. Though widely regarded as a joint project of the United States and Israel, the exact origin of the Stuxnet virus remains to this day a mystery.

“It seemed like a very interesting technical story about a new invention,” said Gibney. “[It was] a piece of malware that crossed the barrier from the cyber world to the physical world…What I didn’t fully appreciate when I started was how much it would get into the realm of the world of espionage, the world of the CIA, the world of Mossad, and also the problems of international law.”

Gibney found that competitive cybersecurity among powerful nation-states has compelled the landscape of electronic warfare to develop largely outside the grasp of public scrutiny. So secretive, in fact, are government cyber warfare programs that officials from the Department of Homeland Security, discovering the impact of Stuxnet on their own, did not realize that what they were seeing was a program that had been secretly launched by their colleagues in U.S. intelligence agencies.

The panel took this secrecy into account in its discussion of allegations of Russian tampering in the U.S. presidential election, a case in which some panelists believed the Russians had intentionally tipped their hand.

“In the Russia hack, the Russians were not particularly unhappy about being caught,” said Sanger. “They’d done some ritual denials, but the tradecraft was not especially artful, compared to the ways the Americans and the Israelis hid their tracks in the course of Stuxnet.”

Knake, who served as director for cybersecurity policy on Obama’s National Security Council from 2011 to 2015, speculated on the administration’s rationale in responding to the attacks. “I think what the Obama Administration is trying to do is create a situation in which this does not happen in 2020,” he said. “And the message being sent quietly to the Trump team coming in is, ‘Look, this could be you guys next time.’”

Both Sanger and Knake addressed the president-elect’s contentious relationship with the intelligence community; Sanger quipped that the evidence suggesting Russian involvement in the release of hacked emails prior to the election was so strong that “out of a population of 300 million I’ve only actually met one person who seems to doubt [this evidence]strongly.”

“I’m going to make a prediction here,” said Knake, “which is that Trump is going to love the NSA. He’s going to be amazed and he’s going to wish that he had this kind of information while he was doing business. These are very, very powerful tools that he will have at his disposal.”

The power of these tools is precisely what demands their discussion in the public realm, Gibney said: “[This is] a whole new realm of weaponry that we really haven’t reckoned with at all, that can be extremely dangerous, and does routinely cross over into the physical realm, but is utterly ungoverned by the rules of the road. Worse than that, we can’t talk about it because everything related to this subject is shrouded in secrecy.”

—Shane Danaher

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