The Essence of USAFA: Courses blend technical, legal expertise

05/22/2014 -- U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: This is part four of an eight-part series detailing the essence of the Academy.

Space systems operators don't work in a vacuum -- at least, not a legal one.

The Air Force Academy offers classes on U.S. space policy and cyberspace law for cadets majoring in either of those technical fields as well as those majoring in law or social sciences as part of its continuing quest, defined in the fourth pillar of the Academy's essence, to blend highly technical fields with a liberal arts education. 

Col. Cheryl Kearney teaches Political Science 465, "U.S. National Space Policy," which helps cadets understand the ways in which nations use and share space and how the U.S. uses space to support specific national objectives. Maj. Robert Palmer teaches Law 440, "Cyberlaw," which covers how the U.S. operates in cyberspace within the constraints of both U.S. and international law." 

Until the last decade, the use of force was most often thought of as a kind of generally measurable kinetic effect: "Something's blowing up," Palmer said. "Cyber weapons don't always fit that model. Does it count as a use of force if I use a zero-day exploit to enter an adversary's computer network? In the cyber realm, consequences are often far less identifiable and quantifiable."

The U.S. also has to weigh its response to cyberspace threats, Palmer said. 

The Caroline Doctrine, which dates back to 1841, allows a nation to use force in anticipatory self-defense if it faces the threat of an imminent attack. Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote that year that a nation's response must be both proportionate and "nothing less than a clear and absolute necessity." But what happens when an imminent threat presents itself through non-kinetic means?

"It's a different situation when logic bombs are already in the system, but haven't been used, or worse, we don't even have a clear idea what they might do when they are. It can be very difficult to determine imminence under those conditions and prepare a proportional response" Palmer said.

The Tallinn Manual, which is one of the textbooks for Palmer's course, devotes a section to self-defense against cyberattack. The manual's writers cited any use of force that "injures or kills persons or damages or destroys property" would constitute an 'armed attack'," but actions that include disabling cybersecurity mechanisms or theft of intellectual property generally do not, despite the perceived invasiveness by the target state. 

The cyber law course also covers what constitutes cybercrime, a topic that Palmer said is especially popular with cadets majoring in computer science.

"It's important how to show them how little it takes to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is 18 U.S. Code, Section 1030," Palmer said. "A question I might pose to the class is, if I lie about my weight on a dating site, have I violated the CFAA? Well, I very well might have, actually, and it all depends on what those terms and conditions that we acknowledge to use the website say, but which most of us never read."

Palmer also mentioned Aaron Swartz, who killed himself after his arrest for allegedly breaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer networks and downloading academic publications from the JSTOR digital library. Prosecutors charged him with 11 violations of the CFAA, which could have carried sentences of up to 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. 

"The big debate we have is, is that right? Has 1030 gone too far, overreached too much?" he said. 

The Academy started offering the cyber law class around 2007. It has offered the national space policy course in one form or another since 1987. The Political Science and Law Departments co-taught the course until 2007. Personnel cuts forced the Law Department to bow out, but the department brings in experts to augment its instructors.

"Space law itself is given two additional lessons in the syllabus, taught by a subject-matter expert from Air Force Space Command's National Security Space Institute," Kearney said. 

Specific lessons also focus on policy debates surrounding the weaponization of space, dealing with space debris, space situational awareness and planetary defense against asteroids that may threaten the Earth. Other topics include commercial space trends, international agreements, and sovereignty over air, space and celestial bodies and government liability, Kearney said.

The intersections of space and cyberspace with law and policy are not academic. For more than a decade, the Combined Air and Space Operations Center has included a director of space forces.

"The lessons of conflict avoidance and strategic competition in the space domain are beneficial to Air Force officers regardless of their eventual career specialty," Kearney said. "For cadets who are not going into the 13S (space) Air Force specialty, the course is perhaps even more professionally essential, as it is likely the only detailed exposure to policy questions regarding the space domain they will have in their career."

Law and computer science majors taking Cyberlaw together have the opportunity to come from their respective fields of expertise and learn from each other, Palmer said. 

"law students bring to the discussion table knowledge and understanding of how the law regulates human behavior in an ordered society," he said. "Computer science students bring to the discussion table knowledge of cyberspace's 'architecture' - its design via computer code. Because cyberspace has no fixed nature or architecture, you need some understanding from both sides of the table to effectively operate or regulate there," Palmer said. 

At the very least, Palmer said he hopes cadets who take his class will have the ability to spot potential legal issues and enrich their appreciation and understanding of the highly technical world they will operate in.

Palmer also said he's learned more about cyberspace operations and the law from preparing the class and talking with our computer science cadets.

"I'm always learning more about the technology and capabilities from the cadets," he said. "And it's made me smarter in areas like free speech, which we do a unit on. "When I was a prosecutor, I handled cybercrimes; when I was in Intel, I handled the intelligence gathering aspects of the law. I've touched different pieces of cyber law in my career, so it's nice to be able to intellectually explore with the cadets and wrap my arms around it more fully here at the Academy."