White House pledges cyber cooperation with Gulf leaders

The White House and Gulf states are joining forces in cyberspace to stifle the burgeoning online threat posed by Iran and Islamic extremists.

The commitments were part of a broader security reached Thursday during daylong talks at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Leaders and delegates from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — attended the meetings.

While cyber didn’t always get top billing in the security pact, it was a major component.

“The United States and GCC member states will consult on cybersecurity initiatives, share expertise and best practices on cyber policy, strategy and incident response,” the White House said in a statement. “The United States will provide GCC member states with additional security assistance, set up military cybersecurity exercises and national policy workshops, and improve information-sharing.”

Cyber threats across the Middle East are an increasing concern for both the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies.

Iran has proved itself a formidable cyber power, developing one of the world's top programs and displaying a willingness to launch digital assaults on its neighbors.

Tehran is thought to have orchestrated the destructive cyberattack on oil giant Saudi Aramco in 2012. The digital hit took out more than 30,000 computers.

As expected, the White House vowed to help strengthen its Gulf allies’ network defenses to counter “Iran’s destabilizing activities,” which include cyberattacks.  

“The United States will work in partnership with GCC member states to build their capacity to defend themselves against external aggression, including in terms of air and missile defense, maritime and cybersecurity,” the administration said.

Islamic extremists have also used their rapidly advancing cyber prowess to deface media outlets and government websites with propaganda messages. A hacking group claiming affiliation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) also briefly took over the U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account earlier this year.

National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers has called ISIS's digital potential one of the biggest cyber threats on the horizon.

On Thursday, the U.S. and GCC decided to form a second working group to examine counterterrorism and border security concerns in the region. As part of its efforts, the working group will consider methods to better secure critical infrastructure networks against potential terrorist-launched cyberattacks.

On the military side, the U.S. will work with Gulf states to expand joint exercises that better account for cyber warfare.

The leaders at Camp David “decided to establish a new, recurring, large-scale exercise emphasizing interoperability against asymmetric threats, such as terrorist or cyber-attacks, or other tactics associated with hybrid warfare," according to the White House.

The U.S. has been working to strengthen its cybersecurity partnerships worldwide.

The White House recently unveiled a wide-ranging cybersecurity alliance with Japan during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s weeklong visit in April.

The pact seemed to target China's massive cyber espionage and digital theft campaign that is costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars and sapping the military of its technological edge.

“We’re hemorrhaging information at a dizzying rate, evidenced by the uncanny similarity of some of our potential adversaries’ new platforms to those we’ve been developing,” said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., during remarks Thursday at a West Point cyber conference.

For soldiers, Winnefeld added, the result “can be fatal.”

Thursday’s commitments with Gulf states are another step forward in the administration's attempt to gather cyber allies for this fight.

“I was very explicit that the United States will standby our GCC partners against external attacks,” President Obama said following the talks, according to pool reports. “We want to make sure this is not just a photo-op, but a concrete series of steps.”