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Feds eye warning on other nations' hostile cyber activities

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The United States, concerned that Iran is behind a string of cyberattacks against banking sites, has considered delivering a formal warning through diplomatic channels but has not pursued the idea out of fears that doing so could escalate hostilities, according to American officials.

At the same time, the officials said, the disruptive activity against the websites has not yet reached a level of harm that would justify a retaliatory strike.

The internal discussion reflects the complex nature of deciding when and how the United States should respond to hostile cyber actions from other nations.

It reflects the pressure the administration is under from banking industry officials, who want to know what amount of pain or damage will justify a government response.

“We don't have a clear view of what are the triggers — and we've asked,” said one industry official who has been involved in discussions with the Obama administration and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They've just been very coy about it.”

Administration officials say it is difficult and unwise to be too precise about potential responses because they do not want to set red lines that, if crossed, might obligate them to act.

“You're always going to see the government be more cautious and incremental in response to most incidents than the private sector probably would like,” Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity coordinator, said recently. “But that's because the risk of misattribution and escalation is real, and we always have to consider the broad foreign policy implications of our actions.”

This much is clear: The last eight months of disruptions to bank websites, caused by efforts to crash servers with torrents of computer traffic, have not been severe enough to trigger a military response, cyber or otherwise.

“Not even close,” said one military official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “But at some point, does it become a question of the public losing confidence in the banking system? That's one of the questions, among many others, in the discussion of when a threshold is crossed.”

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