Plan For Iraqi Cyber War In 2003: Not Executed For Fears Of Collateral Damage

The Bush Administration debated launching a direct cyber offenisve on Saddam Hussein before invaiding Iraq in 2003. The New York Times reports that if the highly classified cyber warfare was launched, it would mark the largest offensive cyber attack in history. The Pentagon, where the 2003 plan was developed, would have shut off all Iraqi government financial networks, crippling Hussein in ordering a military offensive or purchasing new weapons. 

The high-tech plan was never executed because Bush officials feared of the collateral damage that can occur during a cyber attack. The crippling of Hussein’s networks had the potential to spread to innocent civilians, across Iraqi state lines, and even effect the U.S. and European economies. Best explained by cybersecurity expert Mark Seiden, co-author of the National Research Council’s cyberspace report,“The chances are very high that you will inevitably hit civilian targets — the worst-case scenario is taking out a hospital which is sharing a network with some other agency.”

Even though the U.S. military did not carry out the financial cyber attack on Hussein, an attack on Iraqi telephone and communication networks occurred at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. The U.S. government even enlisted satellite and telephone companies to assist in the offensive to turn off specific Iraqi networks. The cyber attack also temporarily halted telephone networks in surrounding Middle Eastern countries, damage deemed minor under the Bush Administration. 

The recent New York Times article comes at a time when the Obama Administration is attempting to beef up cybersecurity. The new U.S. Cyber Challenge aimed at vamping up the cyber job market, the new creation of a White House cyber coordinator position, and recently announced Department of Defense CyberCom are only public examples of the Obama Administration’s increase emphasis on cyber warfare. 

As nations begin to use computer network cabailities in military offenses, the questions of collateral damage and broader global damage will increasingly be looked at. Explained by president of the Cyber Defense Agency and former NSA fellow Sami Saydjari, “If you look the nuclear threat, we have a warning line in Canada and the northern United States to take over launches.  We need to have a similar capability for cyber security. There will be multiple agencies involved in such a development and there needs to be orchestration from the White House.”

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