Every baby boomer lived through the Cold War. Every baby boomer saw it end. But now, as BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes, every boomer lives with a new threat that could be just as disruptive.
Almost lost in the headlines about hearings and hurricanes these past few weeks was the revelation that President Trump has taken off the gloves against anyone who wages cyber war against us. His National Security Advisor John Bolton said the president’s order “effectively enables offensive cyber operations through the relevant departments.” Adversaries specifically identified include Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
Oh how the world has changed.
Back in the years of the Cold War, when there was just a single superpower that threatened us, we knew the threat, as our rivals did: nuclear bombs. And we knew the antidote, as they also did: more nuclear bombs.
That was the reality that hung over every episode of U.S.-Soviet arms talks that I ever covered, and it was MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD was the canon — undertaken in the Carter years, strengthened in the Reagan years — that ironically kept us safe. You wipe me off the face of the map, I’ll wipe you off the same map.
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Today, Mutual Assured Destruction is still with us, but not necessarily with nukes. Because the next big battle with an aspiring superpower is more likely to be fought with computers. Cyber warfare replacing nuclear warfare.
Cyber warfare means hacking. Imagine the perturbing possibilities. An enemy might hack into our transportation systems, throwing air travel into turmoil. Or into our energy systems, disabling our electrical grids. Or into our satellite systems, incapacitating our indispensable cell phones. Or into our communications systems, cutting off our access to information. Or into our financial systems, creating catastrophic confusion with our money. Even into our military systems, crippling our capacity for combat.
An enemy might do it to us. And because we have the same tools, we might do it to them. Back when we were talking about nuclear bombs, neither side sent even one weapon toward its enemy, because that would set off the Mutual Assured Destruction of both sides.
But cyber warfare? We already know from U.S. intelligence reports that the Russians have tested the waters, for example inserting malware— software designed to disable computers— into U.S. electrical grids. Homeland Security revealed just a few months ago that Russia had “infiltrated” some power plant control rooms. And according to Bolton, some 22 million files on Americans with security clearances, “my own included, maybe yours, found a new residence in Beijing.”
Nuclear bomb shelters aren’t going to help us if it goes much further than that.
If one side ratchets up its cyber warfare, the other side almost certainly will retaliate. The first consequences might be incremental, not calamitous. But where does it stop?
Last month I was the moderator of a discussion for the Vail Symposium in Colorado titled, “Russian Attacks on Democracy.” Sharing the stage were experts from Rand Corporation, which does a lot of analysis for the Defense Department, and the Alliance to Sustain Democracy.
One thing we learned was, the title “Russian Attacks on Democracy” doesn’t begin to capture the scope of the threat, because Russia isn’t the only country attacking us. What’s more, the threat doesn’t just come from other countries. It also comes from lone wolves. Donald Trump as a candidate in 2016 might actually have gotten it right when he opined that interference in the election could conceivably be “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”
Another thing we learned was, retaliation isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, we have constraints that our adversaries don’t have. If Mr. Putin, for instance, gives the word— or China’s Xi or North Korea’s Kim or Iran’s Khamenei or any other authoritarian leader— those acting on his behalf can make any moves they like to throw the American infrastructure into disarray. An American president doesn’t have that luxury. At least not legally.
The president’s order though is a step in the right direction. According to Defense Secretary Mattis, we will “build a more lethal force” of first-strike hackers.
However, it’s a lot harder for us to hack into their systems than it is for them to hack into ours. That’s because we live in an open society. They don’t. Anyone can pull a fast one on our news media if the media aren’t alert (and you can judge their alertness for yourselves). And social media? When we’re talking about attacks on our democracy, as much as anything it means infiltrating social media with fake news to turn one group of Americans against another (as if we need outsiders to pull that off). That’s what they did in the 2016 elections, and although it wasn’t the only factor, it made its mark.
When we see threats to our democracy, I’m all for taking off the gloves. Not by raining bombs down on the enemy; he will then rain bombs down on us. And not by simply establishing or strengthening sanctions either. The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians and others, as a journalist I’ve covered some of those societies and all have suffered deprivation— many for all their lives— and I can tell you, they can tolerate it a lot longer than we would; that’s why more often than not, sanctions prove ineffectual.
But when it comes to cyber warfare, while the United States must conform to certain constraints, between corporate and government resources it also can throw a punch second to none. And the lesson from that punch would be this: back off, because while cyber warfare might take its toll more slowly than nuclear warfare, the end result can be the same: Mutual Assured Destruction.
Which nobody wants.