Pentagon Puts Cyberwarriors on the Offensive, Increasing the Risk of Conflict

The program was never activated; the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement avoided conflict. But now that Mr. Trump has announced that he is abandoning the accord, many of those plans are being dusted off, according to several officials.

General Nakasone, in his confirmation hearings in March, made clear that a more aggressive approach to opponents in cyberspace would be needed, though he gave few details. “By conducting operations to frustrate and counter adversary cyberactivities to decrease will, increase cost and deny benefits,” he said, the United States could begin to deliver more decisive blows with its attacks.

The same month, Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, said in testimony that if the United States was going to defend itself in cyberspace, it needed clear rules of day-to-day engagement.

“Cyberspace needs to be looked at as a warfighting domain,” he said, “and if somebody threatens us in cyberspace, we need to have the authorities to respond.” His statement seemed to reflect a view that the current legal authority is too slow.

There is little debate inside the government’s sprawling community of cyberwarriors and defenders that the United States needs to step up its game: It did not see the Russian hack of the 2016 election coming, or North Korea’s “WannaCry” attack last year, which crippled the National Health Service in Britain and rippled around the world, partly driven by stolen American cyberweapons.

But the risks of escalation — of United States action in foreign networks leading to retaliatory strikes against American banks, dams, financial markets or communications networks — are considerable, according to current and former officials. Mr. Trump has shown only a cursory interest in the subject, former aides say, not surprising for a man who does not use a computer and came of age as a business executive in a predigital era.

Efforts to rewrite the main document governing the presidential authorities in the cyberarena — Presidential Policy Directive 20, signed by Barack Obama — have faltered in the chaos of Mr. Bolton’s decision to oust the key players.

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