US likely to wage cyber attacks against Syria

The United States is likely to make cyberattacks part of any military action against Syria, experts say.

"I think that's a certainty," said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the director of the Technology and Public Policy Program.

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Obama administration officials have not publicly addressed whether the U.S. would use computer viruses to destroy Syrian defenses and equipment.

But intelligence documents that were publicized last week revealed the U.S. has an expansive cyber warfare operation that could be mobilized for an assault on the Syrian regime.

Cybersecurity experts say the U.S. is likely to complement an assault from the skies with a cyber offensive that could enable officials to gather intelligence and spy on the Syrian regime.

Chris Finan, a former Defense Department official and fellow at the Truman National Security Project, said intelligence agencies like the NSA would likely take the lead on any cyberattacks in Syria. 

"The military would be very dependent on the intelligence community for anything it wants to do," he said, explaining that the NSA has more advanced hackers than the military does.

The Washington Post on Friday reported that U.S. intelligence agencies conducted 231 offensive cyber operations in 2011, citing classified documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

According to the documents, under a $652 million project code-named GENIE, U.S. hackers use sophisticated software codes to gain access to computers, routers and other machines. The project is expected to have 85,000 "implants" in machines around the world by the end of the year, according to the report.

The implants can be used to monitor an enemy's activity and can also make networks vulnerable to more destructive cyberattacks.

Finan argued that the government should think more creatively about its cyber strategy. He said the U.S. could use long distance Wi-Fi technology to provide Internet access in Syria, which he said would allow for more free communication and empower moderates in the country.

Lewis predicted that the U.S. would stage cyberattacks to disable Syrian air defense systems.

"If you see any air attack against Syria, cyber would be part of the supporting effort," he said. "Interfering with Syrian air defense — that's almost a given."

But Finan expressed doubt that the U.S. would try to use hackers to take out Syrian air shields. He said such an advanced computer virus would likely cost millions of dollars to develop and might only be used once, since enemies could patch their systems.

"You might only have one shot in the gun," he said. "You're only going to use it when the stakes are really high."

Finan argued that the U.S. would likely save such an advanced cyber weapon for a larger conflict, rather than trying to protect unmanned drones in Syria.

Adam Segal, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who studies cyber conflict, agreed that the U.S. is unlikely to try to disable Syrian air defenses with cyberattacks.

"I just think taking air defense out with a cruise missile is faster and easier," he said. "If it is a virus, eventually they could get the virus out, and they could put the air defenses back up. If you blow it up, it's gone."

But Lewis, Finan and Segal all said the U.S. would almost certainly hack into Syrian systems to gather information about the regime's chemical weapons and defenses.

Segal predicted that the U.S. could also send emails and text messages as propaganda to demoralize Syrian officials.

"I don't think there's really any doubt that [cyber] is going to be part of it," Segal said. "I just think it will probably be a part we don't see."