President Barack Obama announced an executive action Wednesday that allows the Treasury Department to impose financially punitive sanctions against cyber hackers who impose a significant threat to national security.
“This Executive Order authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, to impose sanctions on individuals or entities that engage in malicious cyber-enabled activities that create a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States,” Obama said In a statement announcing Wednesday’s executive order.
The action comes after November’s cyberattack on Sony Pictures that the FBI pinned on North Korea. At the time Obama said that private companies bowing to intimidation from cyberhackers would set a problematic precedent and he questioned Sony’s decision to pull its movie “The Interview.”
In January the White House leveled financial sanctions against officials within the North Korean government as part of what Obama called a “proportional response” to the Sony hacking.
In a call with reporters White House Cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel said the process of crafting these sanctions highlighted the need for more direct authority to target individuals engaged in cyber attacks.
“This allows us to have an executive order that focuses directly on the activities of concern whether they arise in North Korea or another jurisdiction,” Daniel said. “Obviously cyber incidents tend to flow very easily across international boundaries, so trying to tie that to a particular location just didn’t make sense.”
Instead of seeking individual sanctions programs against specific countries, this executive action allows the U.S. to target sanctions based on the specific malicious activity itself and the individuals involved.
Obama cited recent threats from a variety of sources that have targeted government infrastructure, private companies and citizens in a statement Wednesday.
However, Daniel told reporters that the U.S. has no new sanctions to announce at this time. The new framework will allow for a robust process in dealing with emergent threats in the future.
“We will use this tool in a targeted and coordinated way against the worst of the worst, the most serious overseas malicious actors,” Daniel said.
In a statement Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew added that the order allows for the department “to expose and financially isolate those who hide in the shadows of the Internet.”
Lew was also cognizant of privacy concerns that can arise when it comes to cyber security, saying the Treasury Department will “use this authority carefully and judiciously against the most serious cyber-threats to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure.”
Along with the ability to use sanctions, Obama said his administration will also make use of existing authorities including diplomatic engagement, trade policy tools, and law enforcement mechanisms in countering threats.
Republicans have been critical of the President’s executive orders and Wednesday’s announcement drew a rebuke from House Speaker Boehner’s office.
“These executive actions can only do so much,” Press Secretary Cory Fritz told CNN. “The president needs to work with Republicans to enact the types of common-sense measures that passed the House in recent years with strong, bipartisan majorities but stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate.”
White House officials told reporters that the drafting of this order included consultations with Congress and that the administration welcomes legislation that enhances cyber security and information sharing.