The Slatest

Trump Reportedly Loosens Rules of Engagement on American Cyberattacks, Reversing Obama-Era Restrictions

A man sits in front of a wall of computer screens at an office in Washington, DC.
A wall of computer screens at an office in Washington, DC on January 19, 2016. MLADEN ANTONOV/Getty Images

President Trump loosened the set of classified rules governing the use of cyberattacks by the U.S. government, reversing the Obama-era Presidential Policy Directive 20 that established interagency procedures for using cyberweapons, particularly against foreign entities, the Wall Street Journal reports. Under the Obama policy, which replaced a framework established during the George W. Bush administration, offensive cyber operations required the sign off from multiple agencies across the federal government, a coordination effort that was designed for legal reasons, as well as to avoid disturbing existing intelligence and military operations. With the changing nature of digital threats, however, some lawmakers questioned whether the established rules were too cumbersome and hindered the government’s ability to respond to digital attacks, such as Russia’s election meddling.


“It wasn’t clear what rules Trump is adopting to replace the Obama directive… The move was described as an ‘offensive step forward’ by an administration official briefed on the decision, one intended to help support military operations, deter foreign election influence and thwart intellectual property theft by meeting such threats with more forceful responses,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, began an effort to remove the Obama directive when he arrived at the White House in April, [an] official said.”

Several U.S. officials told the Journal that while the Obama-era rules had flaws, “rescinding them could create more problems, especially because it was unclear what Mr. Trump would use to replace the rules.” There are significant, unanswered legal questions surrounding what sort of cyber operation is allowable, under what circumstances, and when, much like the rules and laws governing the use of physical military force. Another significant challenge that remains is how to ensure interdepartmental coordination, such that different intelligence and military agencies don’t compromise one another’s active missions.