U.S. Cyber Command personnel at Fort George G. Meade, Md., Oct. 28, 2020.

U.S. Cyber Command personnel at Fort George G. Meade, Md., Oct. 28, 2020. U.S. Army / Josef Cole

The Biden Administration Wants To Standardize How the U.S. Conducts Cyber Operations

The White House is reviewing a Trump administration policy that made it easier for U.S. Cyber Command to conduct offensive cyber operations.

The White House is reviewing a key cyber operations policy in hopes of refining it to make sure offensive cyber capabilities are used appropriately and are ready when needed, according to a top cyber official.

Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology for the  National Security Council, said the White House’s review of a policy implemented by the Trump administration in 2018—often referred to as National Security Presidential Memorandum-13—is needed to make sure the United States’ use of offensive cyber capabilities “fits within our foreign policy goals.” 

The Biden administration is currently re-working the policy, which gave U.S. Cyber Command more discretion to engage in time-sensitive cyber operations, to determine whether cyber capabilities are “resilient, flexible, and ready to be used when needed,” and to check that appropriate processes and reviews are in place, Neuberger said during the Aspen Security Forum Wednesday. 

The review has been criticized because of the possibility that it will lead to policy changes that could slow down offensive cyber operations. 

Co-chairs of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) urged the president in a letter dated April 4 to “not alter” parts of the memo that give the Pentagon “well-defined authorities… to conduct time-sensitive military operations in cyberspace.” 

“These new policies were… reportedly used with great effect to limit Russian cyber-enabled information operations against the United States election infrastructure in both 2018 and 2020. They also play an important role in signaling our willingness to use cyber capabilities, a key aspect to an effective national cyber strategy,” the pair wrote in an April 4 letter to the White House.

Neuberger said these cyber capabilities are “very important” because they have the potential to “prevent or mitigate the need for kinetic operations,” and the review aims to make sure “they would only be used to serve our national goals and in our national interests.” 

That review, she said, is also needed because policies change and the capabilities are still new. 

“We’re learning each time they’re used, and as such, want to have a regular way to take the lessons from operations that occur and capture that in both laws, policies, and frankly processes,” Neuberger said. 

The former cybersecurity head of the National Security Agency also noted that cryptocurrency has some security issues that may not bode well for investors, following multiple hacks from North Korea.

“Certainly we’ve seen the DPRK conduct multiple hacks of cryptocurrency exchanges, gleaning—in the first one at the time—$600 million in crypto funds. So they’ve been a key focus.”

Neuberger said the U.S. has tried to address the issue, such as through sanctions of crypto exchanges.

“But the North Koreans are some of the most flexible and adaptable actors in the world. So we’re working to come up with even more ways to make it riskier, harder, and more costly for them to execute their operations,” she said.

When asked whether these state-sponsored attacks have eroded the reliability or confidence in  cryptocurrencies, Neuberger said: “They’ve highlighted the need for far improved cybersecurity, implementation of anti-money laundering rules around the world in crypto.”