Intel chiefs say cyber norms, deterrence strategy still elusive

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International norms and a clearer U.S. deterrence strategy would help make cyberspace more secure, but both remain elusive, leaders of the intelligence community told lawmakers Sept. 10.

While norms have been developed for other domains, “we clearly are not there yet” in cyberspace, National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers told the House Intelligence Committee. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, meanwhile, reiterated his lament that absent a clear U.S. cyber deterrence policy, hacks of the magnitude of the Office of Personnel Management intrusion will continue.

Rogers and Clapper cast the United States as forward-leaning on responsible cyber behavior and intelligence gathering. But they avoided describing U.S. offensive capabilities in cyberspace or how the NSA’s formidable signals intelligence capabilities might be perceived by other governments.

“I think it’s fair to say the United States has more rules governing the conduct of foreign intelligence than any other nation on the planet,” Clapper said, pointing to a White House directive aimed at protecting privacy in SIGINT collection. Rogers, who also heads U.S. Cyber Command, chimed in to say: “There are very specific things that I find foreign intelligence organizations doing in the cyber domain that quite frankly are illegal for us.”

The State Department has taken the lead in the Obama administration’s push for a set of norms in cyberspace. State has lobbied a United Nations group to adopt principles forbidding nation-states from deliberately harming critical infrastructure online and compelling states to cooperate with international investigations of cybercrimes, for example.

While the State Department has presented those proposals to Congress, lawmakers used the spotlight to make clear that much is still murky with U.S. strategy in cyberspace.

“When does playing defense become offense?” asked Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland.

Defensive cyber actions are pretty well understood at the Defense Department, but “there is still uncertainty about how you would characterize what is offensive and what is authorized,” Rogers replied. 

Rogers: North Korea has hit other states since Sony

The Intelligence Committee hearing featured an armada of five IC officials: alongside Clapper and Rogers were the heads of the CIA, FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The two-hour hearing covered everything from the encryption debate, a pet issue of FBI Director James Comey, to the counterintelligence risks of the OPM hack.

On the latter subject, Comey questioned the utility of offering credit monitoring to victims of the OPM hack, likening it to “buying people flood insurance when their neighborhood just burned down.” Last week, OPM and DOD awarded a $133 million contract for credit and identity monitoring for the 21.5 million people whose background check data was compromised in the breach.

Clapper’s characterization of the OPM breach as a theft rather than an “attack” drew criticism from Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who worried that Clapper was downplaying the event’s significance. Clapper explained his reasoning: Hackers did not destroy data, but stole it in an act of “passive intelligence collection,” which he said is something the United States does.

Amid a slew of other observations was Rogers’ estimation that the North Korea government has conducted offensive cyber operations against other countries since the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment last November, which U.S. officials attributed to the hermit kingdom. He did not elaborate.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


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