Did U.S. avoid cyberattack on Libya to avoid showing how unprepared it is for cyberwar?

White House, Pentagon debated cyberattacks on Libya, Pakistan, decides against both

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An anti-Gaddafi fighter shouts "Allahu akbar" (God is great) as he celebrates the fall of Gaddafi in Sirte.

Saad Shalash / Reuters

Other than the picture showing what rebels swear is what's left of Muammar Qaddafi but looks more like an extra on Walking Dead, the real surprise about the war in Libya was about an attack that didn't happen.

Specifically, according to the New York Times, when Pentagon and White House talked in March about whether and how to give a little outside help to Libyan rebels, they talked about whether the first step should be a bombing campaign designed to take out Libya's anti-aircraft systems and leave control of the skies to the rebels.

Or, in keeping with the need to expose as little of the overstretched U.S. military as possible and avoid political problems at home by spending even more on wars that weren't paid for in the budget – one that the Obama administration would have started – if it would be better to give the mission to an elite group of chairborne warriors who could infiltrate the country's defense networks, hack them to the ground and get home in time for supper.

Launching a cyberattack against Libya would certainly play into the increasing emphasis the Pentagon has been putting on digital defenses and attack for the past couple of years (with little success so far, according to the GAO).

How do you say 'no' to hacking but 'yes' to bombs?

It would risk no American lives, make a point about the ability of Americans to conduct digital warfare in something other than a video game or from the wrong side of the law. And it might be effective.

Maybe not against the Libyans; some in the Pentagon worried there was not enough time to prepare a effective set of attacks.

It might have been effective against the Chinese, who allegedly continue to hack into secure U.S. networks almost at will, and against critics who complain that the Pentagon has few solid capabilities to show for the 20 years it has been responsible for the cybersecurity of the United States.

Ultimately the White House chose to send missiles and planes, rather than bits and bytes, because the risk was too great that the hack would create a precedent that would make large-scale cyberattacks against foreign nations more acceptable.

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