(Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)
Below is my column on the recent attack on the Colonial Pipeline. President Joe Biden and his government (as well as the media) have labeled the actors “criminals” and “hackers”, but specifically not as “terrorists”. Many cyber attacks are forms of extortion. You are looking for money from companies to share data. That is different. This was an attempt to force a population; cause economic chaos.
In particular, DarkSide announced it would cease operations after receiving the ransom, an announcement that has been heralded by many. It’s a dubious claim. First, the purpose of the declaration is to reassure the public and curb calls for a global hunt for the perpetrators. Second, it is meaningless. Whether DarkSide continues to act as a nickname or a functioning organization, we only paid terrorists. We have long maintained the policy of not giving in to terrorism because it causes more attacks. DarkSide and other such attacks have proven how ineffective we are in preventing such attacks or defying such requirements. These are despicable people ready to cause death and social disorder, but they are also rational actors. Right now cyber terrorism is working and the success of this attack will not result in a unilateral ceasefire by the cyber gangs.
Here is the column:
We have heard calls for a growing category of “terrorists” in recent years, encompassing groups from the January 6 rioters to anti-fascist members of the Ku Klux Klan. It is therefore surprising that the White House and the media have simply labeled the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attackers as “hackers”. “DarkSide” is not just a collection of hackers, but a group of terrorists. And the only thing that goes beyond failing to properly label them is the possible reason for not doing so.
From the White House to the Washington Post, the mantra was consistent: gas to the east coast was cut off by hackers demanding – and allegedly receiving – a $ 5 million ransom to give us control of a critical pipeline. Not only did the White House call these people hackers, but when it pushed for its position to pay the ransom, it insisted that it was only a private company decision. Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger said, “Colonial is a private company and we will postpone information about your decision to pay them a ransom.” She and other members of the Biden administration insisted that the ransom payment was a “private sector decision” and said that “the administration has given no further advice at this point.”
After the ransom was widely reported as paid and the gas started flowing again, President Biden gave a “no comment” when asked if he knew the payment. It was an odd reaction as the media apparently knew. The company knew for sure, and most importantly, DarkSide knew. However, the White House wanted to present itself as a mere observer of a private decision on how to deal with “hackers”.
The reason is obvious: Colonial has just paid a ransom to terrorists. In addition, gas pipelines are not just “a private company” but a highly regulated industry that follows government directives closely.
The fact is, most of Washington wanted the company to pay off the terrorists because our east coast was quickly collapsing due to shortages. While the New York Times bizarrely issued (and later silently deleted) a statement that the attack had resulted in no gas station lines or higher prices, other messages were filled with images of long lines, fights at pumps, and cascading shortages.
The White House narrative was to treat this as some sort of cost of running Colonial’s business. The problem is that these are not a pesky cost, but a terrorist solicitation.
While definitions vary, DarkSide fulfills key elements of terrorist crimes. Important provisions such as 18 USC 2331 focus less on motivating terrorist acts than on the intent: “(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) intimidate or coerce the policy of any government; or (iii) influence the conduct of any government through mass extermination, assassination or kidnapping. “Congress added drug gangs to the classifications of domestic terrorism, but laws like the Controlled Substances Act still refer to” willful, politically motivated violence. ” The State Department uses the same definition to designate foreign terrorist organizations. These definitions may need to be changed if groups attempt to terrorize the population in economically motivated attacks. Cyberterrorism can have either economic or political reasons, or both. In fact, DarkSide has claimed to use the money for charity and suggested that they pursue political goals. In addition, such gangs can be recruited or empowered to carry out such attacks by foreign powers such as Russia or Iran.
For those of us who have long spoken out against expansive definitions of terrorism, the danger remains of turning everything from blackmail to identity theft into terrorism. However, DarkSide was clearly trying to intimidate or coerce the entire population of the United States and it succeeded. It used hacking as a tool, but that does not change its status as a terrorist organization – more than the use of food poison, al-Qaeda would make a “food manipulator” rather than a terrorist organization. If you threaten someone when they don’t pay you, you are a blackmailer. If you are trying to force an entire population, you are a terrorist – whether you say it for Allah or Moolah.
However, once you acknowledge that DarkSide is a terrorist organization, it is harder for the White House to shrug its shoulders and simply dismiss it as a “private sector decision.”
We have long pursued a policy of not giving in to terrorists, and outsourcing ransom payments does not change the impact of that decision. DarkSide and other cyber terrorists now know that not only can they succeed, but they can do so surprisingly quickly. In fact, ransomware has been used profitably in businesses around the world for years. In fact, my suspicions are that the vast majority of the ransom amounts paid were not published by companies but are known to the FBI. However, this incident was different. It should cause widespread social and political chaos among our people.
If the Biden government didn’t want to pay terrorists, it could have used a variety of powers to pressure Colonial not to pay. Colonial is tied into our infrastructure and exists largely at the grace of federal and state agencies. If Biden had publicly stated that the company should not give in to terrorists, he would be no less existential to the company than DarkSide.
It may be that, despite years of ransomware attacks and hundreds of billions of dollars in cybersecurity programs, the Biden government has concluded that we are defenseless against cyber terrorism. In this case, the public should be informed. The failure of Congress and our government to defend themselves against such terrorist attacks is a national security failure of staggering proportions. The attack on the Colonial Pipeline was the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor. In both cases, we were caught off guard and unable to deal with a threat that we knew was coming. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt did not make a “no” comment on the critical facts. We believed the FDR back then when it declared in its first inauguration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. If we are to defeat this new form of terrorism, we must first name it what it is. Don’t be afraid of it, be honest.
What the Biden government seems to fear most is the public acknowledgment that it is afraid – fear of the vulnerability of our infrastructure, fear that the public will learn what cyber terrorists already know.
However, this should not be treated as just another political evasion. During the 2020 election, Biden simply refused to share his views on key issues like the packing of the Supreme Court. This is a far more serious matter, however, and we don’t have time for another study commission to cover the President. We have to call DarkSide what it is – a terrorist organization – and recognize what we did: we paid terrorists. Then maybe we can get some answers as to whether our country is only a few days away from another collapse due to failure to defend itself against ransomware.
Jonathan Turley is Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online at JonathanTurley.