The Law of Cyberwar: Round Two, and Three, and Four

Here’s something for those who liked my earlier article for Foreign Policy about the foolishness of letting lawyers determine our cyberwar strategy, though it’s probably even more of a treat for those who hated my article and wished they had equal time. The ABA Journal has posted an extensive, no-holds-barred debate over the views expressed in that article.  Gen. Charles Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general of the U.S. Air Force, contradicts my article with passion, after which I offer a rebuttal, and he a surrebuttal. 

Here’s a sample of Gen. Dunlap’s full-throated assault on my position:

Military commanders have seen the no-legal-limits movie before and they do not like it. In the aftermath of 9/11, civilian lawyers moved in exactly that direction. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for example, rejected parts of the Geneva Conventions as “quaint.” He then aligned himself with other civilian government lawyers who seemed to believe that the president’s war-making power knew virtually no limits. The most egregious example of this mindset was their endorsement of interrogation techniques now widely labeled as torture.

The results of the no-legal-limits approach were disastrous. The ill-conceived civilian-sourced interrogation, detention and military tribunal policies, implemented over the persistent objections of America’s military lawyers, caused an international uproar that profoundly injured critical relations with indispensable allies. Even more damaging, they put the armed forces on the road to Abu Ghraib, a catastrophic explosion of criminality that produced what military leaders like then-U.S. Commander in Iraq Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez labeled as a “clear defeat.”

Infused with illegalities, Abu Ghraib became the greatest reversal America has suffered since 9/11. In fact, in purely military terms, it continues to hobble counterterrorism efforts. Gen. David Petraeus observed that “Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradable. They don’t go away.” Petraeus told the New York Times, “The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.” In short, military commanders want to adhere to the law because they have hard experience with the consequences of failing to do so.

In truth, as important as the moral perspective may be, the practical advantages of adherence to the rule of law have a power all their own—as history plainly shows.

Nazi Germany’s and Imperial Japan’s gruesome violations of the law of war, for example, hardly proved advantageous to them. More recently, Saddam Hussein, who embraced war without “limits,” was pulled from a subterranean spider hole—dirty, defeated and soon to be dead. Moammar Gadhafi’s illicit threats to wage war upon his own civilian population in the spring of 2011 brought the military power of the international community down upon him to the point where he ended his days groveling in a sewer pipe.

Military leaders know that adherence to the law is a pragmatic essential to prevailing in 21st century conflicts. It might be attractive to some to capitalize on the unpopularity of lawyers, to demonize them and even the law itself, but military commanders understand that war today has changed. They know that law has permeated war much as it has every other human activity, and they realize the perils of ignoring its power and influence. Whether anyone likes it or not, war has become, as Gen. James Jones, then the commander of NATO forces, observed in 2003, “very legalist and very complex.”

 And here’s a taste of my rebuttal:

Gen. Dunlap’s second theme is plainly heartfelt but equally mistaken. To him, taking lawyers out of cyberwar strategy will lead to “lawless war,” and he pulls out all the stops to condemn it, invoking Abu Ghraib, Adolf Hitler, Imperial Japan and, um, Alberto Gonzales.

If you’re wondering how the former attorney general got on that list, I suspect it’s because Gen. Dunlap is still fighting the last war. The last turf war, to be precise. The years after 9/11 saw bitter conflict between military judge advocates general and civilian leaders like Gonzales. They fought over military tribunals, Guantanamo and interrogation.

The military lawyers mostly won. But the cost of that victory was high. It did surprising damage to civilian control of the military (it’s hard, for example, to read Gen. Dunlap’s essay without getting the impression that “civilian lawyer” is some new kind of epithet). And it led military and national security lawyers to draw the wrong lessons from the post-9/11 wars. In the future, they concluded, no war should be planned or fought without a lawyer at every commander’s elbow.

Really? Let’s assume, despite substantial contrary evidence, that when we fight in places like Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan we can deprive our adversaries of propaganda victories so long as our military does nothing without a lawyer’s approval. Even if that’s true, why would we expect the same approach to work for a war in cyberspace?

At its worst, cyberwar could reduce large parts of the United States to the condition of post-Katrina New Orleans, maybe for weeks or months. Responding to propaganda attacks isn’t likely to be high on our to-do list.

The exchange is part of a new book, soon to be published by the ABA, entitled “Patriots Debate.” It is a sequel to the earlier volume, Patriot Debates, in which most provisions of the Patriot Act requiring renewal were debated in the same long-form, mostly civil format. The sequel deals with a broader range of legal issues arising from the last ten years of fighting terrorists.

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