This war is in cyberspace …at least, it is for now. And we are getting pounded.
Used to be, the U.S.A. won every war it fought. And we made sure to win the peace that followed, too.
Used to be, the reasons to go to war were clear. And most everyone agreed.
Used to be, we could see the enemy coming. So we knew when—and how—to defend ourselves.
But the last time all that was true, was World War II. And yet, war hasn’t gone out of style. We just don’t fight ‘em like we used to. And we’ve totally forgotten how to manage the peace that follows a victory. Every war, from Korea on to the most recent, has left a messy horror in its wake. But there are plenty of places to read about those disasters.
What we’re up against now is an enemy we can’t see attacking us. Combine that with the current knee-jerk partisan atmosphere, and we are ignoring that our homeland is under attack. We’re in a war right now, a serious one, and we are losing.
It’s a lot like responding to climate change: the longer that we don’t act, the more our loss will cost us. And lord, do we love to kick both of those cans down the road. We’ll act “tomorrow.” Next year. But we are running out of road.
Fake News has always seemed more like a joke than a threat. Now it’s a front in the war.
Almost two decades ago, a friend forwarded me a scary email—from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, no less!—about grocery-store bananas that were infested with flesh-eating bacteria. I knew it was phony because the story appeared nowhere else in the media. (Flesh-eating bacteria did exist, but there was no public contagion, and no one got it from bananas.)
“Do you think that the CDC only issues its findings in email chain-letters?” I asked her.
These days it’s way harder to distinguish the real from the phony. People of opposing political views can select a public media outlet that tells the stories they want to hear. The New York Times prints Trump’s tweets on the front page, regardless of their veracity. And a quarter of the populace believes every word in those tweets.
When he’s not busy generating fake news, Trump reads lies written by others—fed to him by his own people! He may be handy with Twitter on his smart phone, but this POTUS doesn’t actually surf the web by himself. His staff prints out internet news stories—including the occasional hoax—to put on his desk.
As if The Donald’s relationship with bullshit needs any encouragement.
Okay, news hounds, can you distinguish real from fake? Take a quiz offered at the website Factitious. I’m proud to be a news junkie, so I expected a high score. My success rate in the three rounds of ten questions each? 20%, 60%, and 40%. Ouch.
Trump and Putin and Breitbart and Fox News, and so many other professional liars, have succeeded. The news—even when it’s true—is no longer trustworthy.
We can see this type of attack coming, if we choose to recognize it. Some of us, the free press for example, are paying attention. Putin’s war on democracy and open society in Europe and in the United States has been reported on extensively. The problem is, the general public doesn’t perceive the seriousness of the new weapons. There is no editorial guidance or supervision when fake news is disseminated by social media. And many of its consumers seem incapable of critical thought. So Putin has filled multiple buildings with cyber warriors who pump out lies to be consumed as truth. An invisible army already invading us.
Political campaigns and tabloid magazines have distributed weaponized lies for years. Putin simply refined the technique, and scaled it. He’s playing that game on an international scale.
Not all the battles are fought in cyberspace. One approach, borrowed from law enforcement, is the “sting” operation. A tantalizing one burned Dan Rather and CBS in 2004. And just a few weeks ago, Rachel Maddow noted that someone was sending forged NSA documents to news outlets.
You’ll recall that Rather did a highly public face plant in the 2004 sting. He was then the CBS nightly news anchor, having succeeded the revered Walter Cronkite. Rather opened multiple newscasts with documents alleging that George W. Bush had skipped out on his National Guard obligations—after his Dad got him enlisted to avoid Vietnam. But the story, and Rather’s career, collapsed in shame when typography experts revealed that the incriminating documents had been created in a font that did not exist during the Vietnam era.
Clever forgeries! I’ve always thought that Karl Rove staged this sting. It was brilliant. The story of W’s military cheating would have been an effective counterpunch to the swift-boating of his opponent in 2004, John Kerry. But with Exhibit A discredited, the very real possibility that rich boy Bush had ducked his service obligation ceased to be a campaign issue. And he won the election by a slender margin.
I’m not sure that Putin had tried that kind of warfare by 2004, so early in his reign. Did he observe Rove and learn? Or did some nameless actor invent a brand new kind of warfare? That would be interesting to know, but what matters most is how our media deal with stings like this.
Legitimate news organizations are under tremendous fire already. They must redouble their efforts to back up what they report. And that’ll be an easy task, compared with getting people to think critically when they read “news.” As it is today, you have your pick of which reality you want to experience. Just change the channel or click on a different website, and you will hear only what you want to believe.
But the truth can be damaging too, if you’re an important person who didn’t think the law applied to you. Kompromat, explained here, is the Russian abbreviation for “Compromising Material”—most often the preferred tool of blackmail, but used effectively to sabotage Hillary Clinton in 2016 when embarrassing DNC and John Podesta emails were released during the campaign.
It’s cyber warfare only in the sense that Podesta’s emails (for example) were collected and disseminated through cyberspace. Exposés of public figures, with facts real or invented, are as old as Civilization.
Kompromat is usually weaponized real news, a twist on weaponized fake news. And Putin’s cyber warriors have developed a potent hybrid. Take stolen information that is embarrassing and true, sprinkle it with even more embarrassing falsehoods, and then release all.
So, consumer of kompromat: which of those embarrassing items that you just heard about is real, and which is made up? In today’s hyper-partisan world, too few people seem to care. I understand. I don’t watch Fox News, because I’d be constantly shouting at the TV. But Fox News is exactly where my view of the world would be constantly challenged. It’s where I would be required to think through my knee-jerk pronouncements. It’s where I could learn the weaknesses of my political opponents …and my own. I’d have to stop shouting, too.
The loss of reliable public information sucks, to be sure. But at least we’ve still got our safe, warm places to sleep and eat, right? We do, until the power grid goes down. Armageddon movies are always about a Big Bang—some approaching asteroid, or zombies, or an instant ice age. And occasionally, a disturbingly quaint nuclear annihilation.
But I think we’ll end as T.S. Eliot envisioned: not with a bang but a whimper.
You’re probably old enough to recall the Y2K panic, when the computers that ran air traffic control and urban traffic lights and the electric grid were all supposed to crash as the year 2000’s double zeroes broke the ancient software running beneath it all. You may also recall that this disaster actually happened only in the movies, and still, a number of people were white-knuckling that New Year’s Eve 1999.
Now consider that it could happen in the real world, from a cyber attack. You can watch Vladimir Putin’s hackers practice this approach on Ukraine. Russia’s neighbor and former Soviet satellite has been a laboratory for Putin to try out various destabilizing strategies, to see what works. If he can break down their government, their social fabric, they will be an easy invasion target.
Putin famously told George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not really a country,” his way of justifying the future invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula. But really, he wants all of Ukraine.
So: if you want to destabilize a country, you might begin with fake news. It’s inexpensive and has plausible deniability. But it’s just the beginning. Among the rest of Putin’s experimental strategies is cyber-sabotage of Ukraine’s infrastructure. For example, shutting down the electricity grid for an entire Ukrainian city, on several occasions. What I’ve read about this claims that it’ll be us next, if we continue to ignore this issue.
Can you guess the national mood following successive total blackouts in say, New York, Chicago, and L.A.? It might approach that brief post-9/11 unity. But it would be too late. The attack is already being prepared.
The often-rambling Senator John McCain appeared downright focused while questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a June hearing about Russia. At minute 1:25 of this video, McCain cites a scary Politico story about Russian diplomats who U.S. Intelligence tracked “wandering around Kansas,” and in time concluded that they were “trying to map the U.S. infrastructure” for the Kremlin.
Why do that? An army—a nation!—that cannot communicate internally, cannot defend itself. This attack would use cyberspace to disable us in real space.
In efforts beginning last May, Russian hackers reportedly gained access to the business systems of nuclear power companies in the United States. Can access to the technical controls be far behind?
The Wanna Cry ransom attacks of a few months ago don’t appear to be really about money. More likely, they were test runs to see how much damage could be done. And they were smoke screens created for plausible deniability: Russia was among the countries hit hardest by Wanna Cry; and it makes them look innocent. Don’t be fooled.
There’s plenty more going on that I must save for a future post: Trump Junior’s meetings with Russians, Jared Kushner’s “I’m ignorant” defense, Russian hacker attempts to break into our voting registration databases and our voting machines.
I’ll also save, for then, yet another rant about our homegrown saboteurs: the all-Republican state legislators who have gerrymandered our country into minority rule. And then can’t figure out how to govern rationally. See: Kansas and Louisiana.
Bleak, huh? We need our own army of cyber warriors. Oh, and a Commander-in-Chief to give them intelligent direction. On that note, I’ll finish with Trump’s startlingly prescient prediction about his own administration: