In the article Panel Warns U.S. on Cyberwar Plans in the April 29th edition of The New York Times, John Markoff and Thom Shanker reveal that a report recently issued by the National Academy of Sciences is “the first major effort to look at the military use of computer technologies as weapons.” This despite the fact that “The potential use of such technologies offensively has been widely discussed in recent years, and disruptions of communications systems and Web sites have become a standard occurrence in both political and military conflicts since 2000.”

If cyberwar has been a major issue and regularly occuring threat to the US for about 20 years, why are our non-military government agencies responsible for oversight only now getting around to studying it? Isn’t 20 years a little late? Shouldn’t we have been conducting major studies on this issue for, say, at least 15 years, give or take a decade?

And when our government does finally get around to analyzing this issue – better late than never – is it too much to expect that they discuss it with some intelligence, not to mention imagination? For example, The Times reports the study as concluding that “The United States has no clear military policy about how the nation might respond to a cyberattack on its communications, financial or power networks. . . and the country needs to clarify both its offensive capabilities and how it would respond to such attacks.”

But how would they know if the Pentagon or intelligence agencies have a clear military policy, especially since the article makes clear that “the offensive use of cyberweapons is a highly classified military secret” of a “highly classified nature”? If something is highly classified, doesn’t that mean we don’t have access to the information? And if we don’t have access to the information, doesn’t that mean we aren’t going to know if there is a “clear military policy” or not?

It gets worse. Speaking on conditions of anonymity due to the “highly classified nature” of this matter, a senior Pentagon official says that speculating about cyberwar requires – get this – “an enormously vivid imagination.”

We’re screwed.

I can still remember President Bush blubbering something about how the attacks on 9/11 “could not have been imagined”, even though the CIA had issued reports about just such a threat long before the tragedy ever occured. So there seems to be a crisis of imagination on the part of our governmental and military officials. Perhaps all those courses on literature, philosophy and psychology – you know, those worthless, scoffed at “liberal arts” subjects – aren’t so worthless after all if the “imagination” is such an important element of our national security.

The article continues, “This effort to specifically project a lack of clarity [of our policy on cyberwar] is viewed as important to keeping an adversary uncertain of the severity of an American counterattack. Introducing that uncertainty into the thinking of an adversary’s government and military has historically been an essential element of deterrence, whether traditional nuclear deterrence or today’s cyberwar planning.”

If this lack of clarity of our policy is an important deterrence – one that has been “credited with helping deter the larger Soviet-led conventional force throughout the cold war” – then why does the report conclude there should be greater clarity with respect to our “offensive capabilities and how [we] would respond to such attacks,” and that “the veil of secrecy that has surrounded cyberwar planning is detrimental to the country’s military policy”? Wouldn’t greater transparency of our capabilities and intentions only serve to weaken our military deterrence of cyberwar threats?

How can greater clarity of our military capabilities and intentions be both an effective deterrent and detrimental at the same time? If, as the report concludes, “the United States should create a public national policy regarding cyberattacks based on an open debate on the issues, ” then how can we effectively deter our enemies by keeping them in the dark as to our strategies and capabilities? The article never seem to address any of these apperent contradictions.

It does go on to discuss how our military has made it sort of clear that the nuclear option would not be taken off the table in response to a cyber attack, but never make clear exactly what relevance or consequence this has to anything in the report by the Academy.

This is an example of substandard journalism that fails to ask important questions and examine apparent contradictions. America deserves better from its press, which for years has failed to effectively examine important national issues, giving the Bush administration for example the ability to carry out the widespread criminal destruction we see around us with virtual impugnity. And we deserve better from our military and our government as well.

Can you imagine such a thing?

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