According to a report by The New York Times, a secret White House legal review has granted the president of the United States the legal authority to order preemptive cyber attacks against a target (which can be a country), when there is credible evidence of a pending attack.
Officials that were involved in the review tells the Times that the president now has “broad power to order computer-based attacks on adversaries that disrupt or destroy their systems, without requiring a declaration of war from Congress.” The new rules also determine how government agencies can monitor networks for warnings of imminent attacks.
It also dictates the point wherein the Department of Defense becomes involved. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are the first ones responsible for defending the commercial networks and the US government from attacks, but at a certain point (which is being kept secret), the Department of Defense steps in — if they are granted approval directly from the president.
This news comes shortly after recent cyber attacks on the New York Times. Ars Technica notes that the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were also victims of attack, and all three are attributed to state-sponsored hackers in China.
China has recently denied government involvement in the attacks, and has even hinted at ulterior motives by the US.