Intel chief wants to ‘play offense’ on cyber warfare

Intel chief wants to ‘play offense’ on cyber warfare
© Greg Nash

Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHow President Biden can hit a home run Former Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security MORE on Wednesday indicated that the U.S. government is seriously considering adopting an offensive cyber warfare strategy.

When asked during a media breakfast in Washington, D.C., whether U.S. intelligence agencies should go on the offensive in terms of information warfare, Coats said such an idea is under "serious consideration" because the U.S. cannot constantly be playing defensive in the cyber space. 

"I’m publicly onboard with the idea that you can’t just play defense, you have to play offense. How we play offense, what kind of offense, is under serious consideration," the cyber chief told reporters. 


"Cyber falls under that grey zone of is this warfare or not warfare?" he continued, in part. "In that grey zone — I use the word ‘attack.’ I wanted people’s attention that we have a cyber problem, a cyber issue that we need to deal with. It is affecting a lot of elements of our society and our economy."

His remarks come as longstanding frustrations continue to simmer among a bipartisan group of senators who say the federal government lacks a clear policy on how to respond if the U.S. faces a cyberattack — a concern legislators raised during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Over a dozen lawmakers on both sides of the aisle wrote to the Trump administration last month expressing a sense of urgency for the Trump administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to deter as well as adequately respond to malicious cyber behavior.

Coats, who has previously acknowledged a lack of a comprehensive U.S. cyber strategy, said new laws, policies and presidential directives may all be possible if the federal government does decide to adopt such a strategy.

“It could be all of the above, depending on what we feel we need in order to protect ourself — not only defensively, but we are not going to tolerate somebody using this method to attack our systems," he said.

While Coats did not provide a specific timeline for such a decision, he emphasized that the entire government is engaged on this matter. 

"There is more going [on] relative to this issue than I think has been reported," he said, calling it "one of our major challenges.”

Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election has drawn great attention to the issue of developing such a comprehensive strategy. Democrats’ personal email accounts were hacked and then leaked to the public in an effort to cause damage during the election, amid concerns Moscow targeted state and local election systems.  

When asked whether the U.S. is prepared to protect election systems from further outside meddling, Coats replied "we sure hope so."

"They are not going to change the date of the election so, the days are counting down. But there is significant multi-agency efforts underway to try to assure the American people that these elections will be legitimate and not tampered with," he said, adding that the Department of Homeland Security is taking on a very significant role in the matter.

- Ellen Mitchell contributed.