Friday, June 1, 2012

Quiet Wars

The New York Times has been doing a bang-up job on President Obama these days, the latest being David Sanger’s June 1 article, “Obama Order Sped up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran.” This follows an earlier piece in the May 29 Times describing the President’s hands-on approach to Drone attacks, noting in particular that Obama early on took direct control of that targeted assassination program started by W, insisting that he (Obama) have the last word in selecting who should die via drone (“Obama’s Secret Kill List” by Jo Becker & Scott Shane). What is not clear is whether the Obama administration is approving these pieces, on the theory that the publicity confers ‘street cred’ on the mild-mannered compromiser, demonstrating that under that mild exterior lies a fierce warrior implementing all kinds of mayhem on America’s terrorist enemies. Forget secret prisons. Forget torture and all the attendant messy publicity. With drones—and Obama has increased the use of drones by a huge percentage since taking office, especially in Pakistan and now in Yemen—the President can just pick out a face from those presented to him, approve it as a target, and the drones do the rest—focusing on the alleged terrorist and dropping a missile on his home, car, hideout, or wherever he can be located. No risk of American boys being shot down or exposed. No tearful widows of fallen soldiers to console. As to collateral damage, an even bigger No problema. Wives and children obliterated by missile are fair game; as for the others, the CIA has solved the problem by simply declaring that any grown male killed in a drone attack can be considered a terrorist. After all, what other kind of male would be in the vicinity of a known terrorist?

            It’s a lovely little formula. We send out our drones to attack specified targets already selected by (presumably) on-the-ground spies, and in a puff of smoke away goes one more of our alleged enemies. It’s the perfect type of warfare for our squeamish age. No flag-draped, tearful coffins on our side, no broken brains or limbs to have to deal with for years, and no messy trials where terrorists might be able to justify themselves. Just take them out from the sky via smart un-manned vehicles and you’re done. It’s the Israelis who perfected this targeted assassination mode, of course, and who no doubt sold it to their BFFs, Us. Same type of enemy suspects. Same solution: kill and ask questions later. No evidence needed.

            Now we are finding out that this type of cyber warfare (and drones qualify as cyber warfare, no question about that, being operated by young cyber warriors directing them via computer keyboards in distant places like upstate New York or Colorado) has another strand. We had heard about the Stuxnet virus when it suddenly went public some time in 2010. It wasn’t supposed to go public of course. It was created by US and Israeli intelligence starting in 2006, code name Olympic Games (these guys have a sense of humor, no doubt about it) in the hopes that the Bush Administration could sabotage Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by getting a super-bug into the computers that run their Natanz centrifuges. Apparently, when Bush left office, he urged Obama to keep at least two of his programs going, this being one of them. Obama did so, and put it on steroids. Stuxnet was then said to have successfully caused hundreds of Iran’s centrifuges to self-destruct, before it somehow slipped out of Natanz and onto the internet. Oops. More recently, we have learned of yet another, more general cyber attack via computer virus, this one called Flame. It too has gone public, causing some consternation, since like all viruses, these things spread beyond what their creators might originally have intended. But the main emotion has been gloating, since once again, our super-smart American techies, along with their fiendishly smart Israeli counterparts, have been able to sabotage those dumb A-rabs, and wreak havoc on their primitive cyber systems. We, the public, are no doubt meant to feel comforted by this. After all, while the messy hot wars are being wound down, these clean, clever little cyber wars have been ramping up with all possible speed to keep us safe in consumer heaven.

            The problem, as even David Sanger has admitted, is that little old blowback problem. Because if our techies can come up with computer viruses (and eager beavers in government are now urging the same kinds of attacks on North Korea, on China, and anywhere else we have ‘enemies’), won’t those in the Arab, Korean, and Chinese world soon be able to do the same? And if we have taken off the gloves by attacking another nation’s key facilities, won’t American cyber facilities—far more numerous and perhaps far more vulnerable—also become targets sooner rather than later? Do ya think? Here’s how Sanger puts it:

            Mr. Obama has repeatedly told his aides that there are risks to using — and particularly to overusing — the weapon. In fact, no country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.

                  Well, yeah. And if the United States has now gone totally drone in targeting and killing its putative enemies in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and god knows where else, isn’t the same thing going to come back to the United States? Because one thing is certain: once a technology is developed, it quickly becomes part of the arsenal of all states, not just those who invent it. We’ve been learning this lesson since at least the invention of gunpowder. Drones and cyberwarfare will be no different. And with respect to drones, we also now know that these weapons from hell are already coming back to haunt us. For one thing, they simply make war much easier, and for the reasons already stated: no messy foot soldiers to deal with, no deaths in combat to have to apologize for, no nasty wounds to have to take care of. The drone does it all from its invulnerable position in the sky. If it gets shot down, no problem. Just buy another one. And send it out to kill its target, rain or shine, rough terrain or smooth, impregnable enemy fortress or open battlefield. The traditional petty concerns of normal warfare—much less petty concerns about guilt or innocence—no longer apply. Just kill the “bad guys” (and there’s never a shortage of those) and be done with it. For another, these drone things have been selling like hot cakes domestically as well. That’s right. Police departments all over America—New York and L.A. and Chicago already have a supply—are now lining up to stockpile their own drones for use against domestic ‘lawbreakers.’ Because drones make great spies—able to aim their cameras into any walled-in yard or junkyard or forest, able to track bad guys into the most remote hideouts. And in a pinch, they make great assassins too: just send them up to kill whoever has shot first. The drone could probably even document its reasons for implementing a kill: take a video, for example, of some dark assailant who resisted it, and then, voila, it simply had to retaliate to ‘protect’ itself.

            You get the picture. We’re all in the cyber pot, now. And why not. We’ve gotten used to helicopters patrolling our skies. Why not drones? You got something to hide? Something on your computer to hide from Flame? Some conversation on your cell phone or words in your email you’d rather not reveal to Big Brother?

            And it’s all coming from our Brother in the White House. What could be bad?

Lawrence DiStasi

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