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Russian Cyberespionage and the Rhetoric of War

According to the United States intelligence community, during the 2016 election campaign Russian operatives hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and then made those emails available to conduits such as WikiLeaks who made them available to the public. The purpose of these hacks was to weaken the campaign of Hillary Clinton and to aid that of Donald Trump. There is increasing evidence that Russians also unleashed thousands of “bots,” or automated user accounts, on social media to disseminate misinformation and other material harmful to the Clinton campaign.

The discovery of these Russian measures has led to shock and outrage. This past Monday, former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on Russian interference in the election process, noted that “in some quarters, that would be considered an act of war.” The next day, former DNC chair Donna Brazile stated, “I’ve never agreed with Dick Cheney in my entire life, but when he said this was an act of war, I have to agree with the former vice president.” These statements by Cheney and Brazile echo earlier comments by media pundits and even members of the U.S. Congress.

Although Russian interference in last year’s election was a significant breach of national sovereignty and should be taken with the utmost seriousness, we ought to be extremely careful about using the language of war to describe what has occurred. The Catholic tradition provides us with resources for how to think through questions of national security and war. First, the Catholic tradition is supportive of a framework of law that governs relations between states, including the use of force and other potential breaches of national sovereignty. Second, that tradition warns us that we should be very cautious about using the language of “war” because it contributes to a mindset that divides the world into friends and implacable enemies, contributing to polarization and a breakdown in the common good.

The first danger in loosely using the term “act of war” is that it is a legal term of art, and in this legal context committing an “act of war” brings with it legal ramifications. For example, the U.S. Code defines an act of war as: “[A]ny act occurring in the course of: declared war; armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or armed conflict between military forces of any origin.” Although this definition is not perfectly clear, it suggests that an act of war must involve participation in armed conflict, a very traditional definition that would exclude hacking.

In international law, an “act of war” can be considered “an act of aggression.” The commission of an act of aggression, according to the United Nations Charter, then provides legal justification for armed self-defense measures by the country under attack or concerted international action coordinated by the United Nations Security Council.

Clearly no one is advocating that the U.S. take up arms in a military intervention against Russia in retaliation for last year’s cyberattacks. Rather, my point is that the sloppy use of legal terms with precise meanings and distinct ramifications can negatively impact our response to serious threats. For example, it is arguably the case that the overly broad use of the notion of “war” in the “war on terrorism” helped generate some of the most persistent legal and ethical dilemmas associated with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. For example, detained terrorists were designated as “enemy combatants,” raising questions about due process, indefinite detention, and interrogation techniques. Likewise, the Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations have carried out drone strikes against terrorists in nations with which the U.S. is not at war, such as Yemen and Somalia, and the Trump administration has recently expanded the “war zones” in Yemen and Somalia to facilitate such strikes, but at the risk of increasing civilian casualties. Turning to “war” as the overarching framework for understanding our nation’s cybersecurity could similarly lead to other, avoidable but as yet unanticipated legal and ethical dilemmas. Even though threats to our nation’s cybersecurity raise unprecedented questions, we already have the legal tools to address the issue, through our laws against espionage.

My second concern is how talk of war can affect the mindset we adopt in addressing the problem of cybersecurity and espionage. Of course, cyberattacks carried out by state actors like Russia are serious breaches of national sovereignty and potentially pose a threat to national security. They must be taken seriously, and the U.S. must keep a range of responses on the table, including economic sanctions and perhaps acts of cyberespionage of our own. But the language of “war” helps create the impression of a total conflict between nations that undermines our real foreign policy goals. The U.S. can respond forcefully to Russian cyberespionage while also working diplomatically with Russia in other areas such as the conflict in Syria.

More importantly is the effect that the language of “war” has on our domestic political discourse. Because the Russian cyberattacks were aimed at interfering in a highly contested and polarized election, the investigations into the attacks have themselves become polarized. This has been made much worse by the credible allegations that certain members of the Trump campaign were aware of, or even cooperating with, Russia’s cyberespionage. The U.S. is in a uniquely precarious political situation and the stability of our political institutions is at risk. Under such conditions, talk of “war” only makes the situation worse. Law enforcement and congressional investigations should be allowed to take their course no matter where they lead, and anyone guilty of criminal actions should be brought to justice. But in this highly charged atmosphere, people are now being called “traitors” because of their political positions, and opposition to President Trump is being confused with a kind of cheap “patriotism.” We look back in shame at earlier periods of hysteria, such as the Red Scare of the late 1910s and McCarthyism in the 1950s, and we should not be tempted to repeat the excesses of those times.

As serious as the Russian cyberattacks are, they have exploited the weakness of our political and civil institutions which has been in part caused by polarization. Even if we can bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks carried out against the U.S., our response must be done in a way that does not exacerbate the underlying social weaknesses that were exploited by the Russians and made their actions so successful. Our goal should be to strengthen the institutions and values needed to pursue the common good, not to weaken them.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

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