Stepping into a heated debate within the nation’s intelligence agencies, President Obama has decided that when the National Security Agency discovers major flaws in Internet security, it should — in most circumstances — reveal them to assure that they will be fixed, rather than keep mum so that the flaws can be used in espionage or cyberattacks, senior administration officials said Saturday.
But Mr. Obama carved a broad exception for “a clear national security or law enforcement need,” the officials said, a loophole that is likely to allow the N.S.A. to continue to exploit security flaws both to crack encryption on the Internet and to design cyberweapons.
The White House has never publicly detailed Mr. Obama’s decision, which he made in January as he began a three-month review of recommendations by a presidential advisory committee on what to do in response to recent disclosures about the National Security Agency.
But elements of the decision became eviden, when the White House denied that it had any prior knowledge of the Heartbleed bug, a newly known hole in Internet security that sent Americans scrambling last week to change their online passwords. The White House statement said that when such flaws are discovered, there is now a “bias” in the government to share that knowledge with computer and software manufacturers so a remedy can be created and distributed to industry and consumers.
Until now, the White House has declined to say what action Mr. Obama had taken on this recommendation of the president’s advisory committee, whose report is better known for its determination that the government get out of the business of collecting bulk telephone data about the calls made by every American. Mr. Obama announced last month that he would end the bulk collection, and leave the data in the hands of telecommunications companies, with a procedure for the government to obtain it with court orders when needed.
But while the surveillance recommendations were noteworthy, inside the intelligence agencies other recommendations, concerning encryption and cyber operations, set off a roaring debate with echoes of the Cold War battles that dominated Washington a half-century ago.
Not surprisingly, officials at the N.S.A. and at its military partner, the United States Cyber Command, warned that giving up the capability to exploit undisclosed vulnerabilities would amount to “unilateral disarmament” — a phrase taken from the battles over whether and how far to cut America’s nuclear arsenal.
“We don’t eliminate nuclear weapons until the Russians do,” one senior intelligence official said recently. “You are not going to see the Chinese give up on ‘zero days’ just because we do.” Even a senior White House official who was sympathetic to broad reforms after the N.S.A. disclosures said last month, “I can’t imagine the president — any president — entirely giving up a technology that might enable him some day to take a covert action that could avoid a shooting war.”
At the center of that technology are the kinds of hidden gaps in the Internet — almost always created by mistake or oversight — that Heartbleed created. There is no evidence that the N.S.A. had any role in creating Heartbleed, or even that it made use of it. When the White House denied prior knowledge of Heartbleed on Friday afternoon, it appeared to be the first time that the N.S.A. had ever said whether a particular flaw in the Internet was — or was not — in the secret library it keeps at Fort Meade, Md., the headquarters of the agency and Cyber Command.
But documents released by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, make it clear that two years before Heartbleed became known, the N.S.A. was looking at ways to accomplish exactly what the flaw did by accident. A program code-named Bullrun, apparently named for the site of two Civil War battles just outside Washington, was part of a decade-long effort to crack or circumvent encryption on the web. The documents do not make clear how well it succeeded, but it may well have been more effective than exploiting Heartbleed would be at enabling access to secret data.
The presidential advisory committee did not urge the N.S.A. to get out of the business entirely. But it said that the president should make sure the N.S.A. does not “engineer vulnerabilities” into commercial encryption systems. And it said that if the United States finds a “zero day,” it should patch it, not exploit it, with one exception: Senior officials could “briefly authorize using a zero day for high priority intelligence protection.”
This shows NSA ha full rights to do anything.
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