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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is putting the finishing touches on rules that will give military commanders clearer authority if they have to respond to an enemy cyber-attack, military officials and cyber-security experts say.
Defense Department officials have started talking more openly about offensive cyber-capabilities, including the creation of 13 teams capable of offensive operations if the United States is attacked.
"This is all putting the world on notice, particularly the Chinese, that we're tired of them breaking into private companies," said Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Mandiant, a computer security company.
The so-called rules of engagement will "provide a defined framework for how best to respond to the plethora of cyber-threats we face," said Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman.
The rules will be secret and cover more conventional combat as well.
The cyber-warfare rules are the most contentious because it is a new domain.
"The technologies and capabilities are developing so rapidly that sometimes policies have to catch up," said Terry Roberts, a vice president at TASC, an engineering services company that works with the intelligence community and the Defense Department.
The Pentagon said the military has existing rules that allow it to defend the nation, but analysts say the new rules will give military commanders clearer guidance and make it easier to take action without clearing it at the presidential level.
The need to create a new set of rules reflects how muddled the cyber-world is. Even what constitutes an act of war is difficult to determine.
Gen. Keith Alexander, head of Cyber-Command, said recently the bulk of cyber-attacks are espionage and commercial theft, not an act of war. "If the intent is to disrupt or destroy our infrastructure, I think you've crossed a line," he said.
NATO is struggling with similar issues. A new NATO report that attempts to apply international law to cyber-warfare concludes that a state can retaliate in a proportional way against a country that attacks it.
It also said that determining where the attack originated is difficult. Even if investigators determine where an attack originated, it could have been the work of a hacker who routed it through a third nation.
Last month, when hackers launched an attack on South Korean companies, investigators initially identified China as the source of the attack. Investigators then backed off the accusation and said it was unclear where it originated.
"The item that makes cyber-warfare more difficult is the issue of attribution," Roberts said.
There are other murky issues. China regularly attempts to steal corporate secrets in an effort to assist its own economy, which isn't traditionally a military issue.
Alexander said the theft of corporate data by criminals and nations is "the greatest unwilling transfer of wealth in history."
The Pentagon works with the intelligence community, the Justice Department and other government agencies on cyber-issues, Alexander said.
Military officials expect the cyber-threat will worsen.
"When you look at the strategic landscape from our perspective, it's getting worse," Alexander told Congress recently.
The Pentagon has said its cyber-rules of engagement would be in accordance with normal laws of land warfare.
But some analysts say the forms of warfare are so different that they wouldn't apply. For example, most cyber-attacks are not designed to inflict physical harm.
"You take all the military rules of engagement and apply them in cyberspace and you have to be scratching your head," said Martin Libicki, an analyst at Rand. He said new rules should be created that are tailored specifically to the new technology.
One of the most brazen cyber-attacks was an assault on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010 that damaged centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the United States and Israel are suspected.
It was an act of sabotage that caused physical damage.
"If that is something we did, then we did something no one else ever did," Libicki said.