WASHINGTON: The US military has been launching cyber attacks against its opponents in Afghanistan, a senior official said last week, making an unusually explicit acknowledgment of the oft-hidden world of electronic warfare.
Marine Lt Gen Richard P. Mills’s comments came at a conference in Baltimore during which he explained how US commanders considered cyber weapons an important part of their arsenal.
“I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact,” Gen Mills said. “I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command-and-control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire, to affect my operations.”
Mills, now a deputy commandant with the Marine Corps, was in charge of international forces in southwestern Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011, according to his official biography. He didn’t go into any further detail as to the nature or scope of his forces’ attacks, but experts said that such a public admission that they were being carried out was itself striking.
“This is news,” said James Lewis, a cyber-security analyst with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He said that while it was generally known in defence circles that cyber attacks had been carried out by US forces in Afghanistan, he had never seen a senior officer take credit for them in such a way.
“It’s not secret,” Lewis said in a telephone interview, but he added: “I haven’t seen as explicit a statement on this as the one” Gen Richard Mills made.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Mills’s speech.
US defence planners have spent the past few years wondering aloud about how and under what circumstances the Pentagon would launch a cyber attack against its enemies, but it’s only recently become apparent that a sophisticated programme of US-backed cyber attacks is already under way.
A book by The New York Times reporter David Sanger recently recounted how President Barack Obama ordered a wave of electronic incursions aimed at physically sabotaging Iran’s disputed atomic energy programme. Subsequent reports have linked the programme to a virus dubbed Flame, which prompted a temporary Internet blackout across Iran’s oil industry in April, and another virus called Gauss, which appeared to have been aimed at stealing information from customers of Lebanese banks.
An earlier report alleged that US forces in Iraq had hacked into a terrorist group’s computer there to lure its members into an ambush.
Herbert Lin, a cyber expert at the National Research Council, agreed that Mills’s comments were unusual in terms of the fact that they were made publicly. But Lin said that the United States was, little by little, opening up about the fact that its military was launching attacks across the Internet. “The US military is starting to talk more and more in terms of what it’s doing and how it’s doing it,” he said.
“A couple of years ago it was hard to get them to acknowledge that they were doing offence at all — even as a matter of policy, let alone in specific theatres or specific operations.”
Gen Mills’s brief comments about cyber attacks in Afghanistan were delivered to the TechNet Land Forces East conference in Baltimore on Aug 15, but they did not appear to have attracted much attention at the time. Footage of the speech was only recently posted to the Internet by conference organisers.—AP