Security Insiders: Sequestration Most Likely Scenario

Sara Sorcher

Sequestration is now the most likely scenario, according to 78 percent of National Journal's National Security Insiders, who are not optimistic that Congress and the White House will reach a deal to reduce the deficit by the March 1 deadline.

"Since neither side is able to put the national interest above their own political interests, automatic cuts will do their jobs for them," one Insider said.

President Obama last week called on Congress to pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms to delay sequestration a few more months past March 1, to avoid the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts divided between defense and nondefense discretionary accounts "until Congress finds a way to replace these cuts with a smarter solution." Republicans, however, quickly rebuffed that plan.

"If Republicans cannot get a new deal involving entitlement cuts but no added tax revenue, they prefer accepting sequestration cuts to defense programs as the price of getting some cuts to civil programs. If Democrats cannot get a deal involving more tax revenue but without entitlement cuts, they prefer accepting sequestration cuts to civil programs as the price of getting some defense cuts," one Insider said. "And neither side thinks it can get a new deal that is acceptable to it." With President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, still butting heads over the best plan, one Insider said it is "hard to see how this cast of characters can square the circle."

"Congress is similar to a defiant toddler; sometimes you've got to let them put their hand on the hot stove in order for them to learn a lesson," one Insider said.

A 22 percent faction was more optimistic that sequestration would be avoided. "In fine D.C. tradition, we will stumble forward until the moment of disaster and come forward with a suboptimal compromise," one Insider said. "It is what we do so well here."

Separately, 84 percent of Insiders said that the White House can use force preemptively if the U.S. uncovers credible evidence of a major cyberattack from abroad. The New York Times reported on the secret legal review that gives President Obama the broad power to launch such a strike if a cyberattack is imminent. "The president should be able to use force to defend the United States regardless of the nature of the threat," one Insider said. Another added: "A cyberattack that targets infrastructure could be as debilitating as a bomb."

The president's use of force is legitimate especially if the cyberattack adversely affects major portions of the nation's critical infrastructure, one Insider said. "Cyberspace must be regarded as a domain of warfare, just like we view air, sea, land, and space now. If a cyberattack results in loss of life or negatively impacts the economy, the president can legitimately use force in his response in order to neutralize the threat posed by the cyberattack."

The question here is what constitutes an attack and what is force in cyberspace, cautioned another Insider who agrees that the president should preempt a cyberattack. "Exploitation or attack via the Internet is different from a kinetic strike. The law of war and the resolution of other legal issues regarding cyberoperations are in their infancy. The standard for credible evidence will include a very broad range of factors that create great flexibility until the legal framework matures."

1. With the March 1 deadline looming, is sequestration now the most likely scenario?

(55 votes)

  • Yes  78%
  • No 22%


"A consensus has emerged that this radical course of action will contribute to deficit reduction in the only way possible."

"Underscores the pathetic incompetence of what now passes for governance in Washington. We will soon be the world's laughingstock. Kim Jong Un and the Iranian mullahs, among others, will be celebrating America's self-inflicted decline as a great power."

"If sequestration happens, it will be fiddled and corrected in the subsequent budget negotiations."

"Sequestration would be another indictment of the decay and dysfunction in our political system."

"Will be one month long."

"Most likely but still possible to be avoided."

"Members of Congress and their staffs have no idea how to avert it."

"I hope I'm wrong, but the legislative and executive branches have not been able to find enough common ground to convince me they can avoid sequestration. This has the potential for devastating effects on national security and the economy."

"And it may not be a bad thing when viewed from six months or a year from now."


"Budget cuts will be rolled into the budget debate. They may still occur, but Congress will have another two months to wrestle with the issues."

"In fine D.C. tradition, we will stumble forward til the moment of disaster and come forward with a suboptimal compromise. It is what we do so well here."

2. In an internal legal memo, the White House says that the president can use force preemptively if the U.S. uncovers credible evidence of a major cyberattack from abroad. Is that a legitimate use of force?

  • Yes 84%
  • No 16%


"A big issue, however, is the standard of proof required to justify preemptive physical force. If reliable, compelling evidence is available, that's one thing. But it often won't be. If attribution is as hard in cyber as many believe, we will rarely have compelling proof—in advance—of a looming cyberattack, and the actual situation is likely to be ambiguous most of the time. Using physical force in advance against an ambiguous threat with a high risk of mistaken threat assessment could be very dangerous. So defining 'credible evidence' will be especially important in this domain."

"Article 51 of the U.N. charter states that nations have the right of self-defense. As societies tend to increase their reliance on the cyberworld for a wide range of needs, so, too, have their national security interests increased. A state that plans to employ cyberattacks against another state must recognize that it, too, could suffer from a preemptive or retaliatory attack."

"Yes, just as is preemption in other circumstances, such as credible tactical warning of a nuclear or biological attack. The U.N. charter's Article 51 refers to 'the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.' No U.S. or international doctrine in wide acceptance requires a country to absorb a devastating attack before acting."

"Cyber is the not-so-new frontier for war!"

"No different from the controversial Bush national security strategy. Except what is OK for a Democratic administration is not OK for a Republican one."

"However, we must have high standards for 'credible evidence'—standards that we would accept that other states could employ against the U.S."

"We are not likely to suffer 'a Pearl Harbor-type attack' in a traditional sense. We are already under unprecedented attack over the last decade and vast intellectual property, concentrated in advanced in advanced research and development, has been stolen from U.S. industry. We have, in essence, already experienced 'our Pearl Harbor.' We need to accept this and begin to take the extraordinary actions required to protect vital U.S. national security interests. We have delayed far too long; inaction is inexcusable."

"Cyberattacks are a form of warfare like any other and should be subject to the same just-war theory. Preemptive attacks are allowed if an enemy is about to strike—whether with bombs or electrons makes no difference."

"We're going to wait to be attacked?"

"Offensive cyber is now comfortably tucked inside the law of warfare."

"But Congress should absolutely weigh in with legislation codifying intent, acts of war, etc."

"We have the right to attack those who are going to attack us. You never take that option off the cyberwar table."


"Absent our own incompetence, cyberattacks can't do significant physical damage to the U.S. Threatening or using physical force in response to cyber is needless and embarrassingly bellicose."

"Nobody has made the case that even a 'major cyberattack' would create the sort of physical damage that a military attack would, which is what you'd need if you wanted to send America to war. (Further, even if a cyberattack could create such destruction, why wouldn't the obvious threat of U.S. reprisal be an effective deterrent?) This is a Beltway meme that became Received Wisdom without even a dollop of critical scrutiny. Slowing down bank websites or rummaging through The New York Times's e-mail is not an act of war."

National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:

Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.