Belmont Club

The Deniables

War is back, but it’s not called that any more. It now goes by a variety of names: workplace incident, act of insanity, cyber-vandalism, responsibility to protect. It comes in a range of intensities, from a machete attack on cops in a subway to the destruction of two skyscrapers containing thousands of people. But whatever name one prefers, it’s back.

The world in which “it” happens has strange geometries. There’s a shorter fence around the border but a taller fence around the White House. The door to Cuba may have been opened yet the Mall of America was shut due to protests over Ferguson, Missouri.   It’s a world where memes and information compete for dominance and survival; a strange world in which the administration is mooting punishing China to get back at North Korea for a computer attack on a private corporation. The Daily Beast says:

“Our best response,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast, “would be to turn the screws on [the North Koreans’] patrons.”

The most important of those patrons are in Beijing. China is the Hermit Kingdom’s most important trade partner, and it also supplies much of the manpower and technology North Korea uses to conduct cyberattacks.

President Obama plans to punish China by reaching out to it. The New York Times reports “The Obama administration has sought China’s help in recent days in blocking North Korea’s ability to launch cyberattacks, the first steps toward the ‘proportional response’ President Obama vowed to make the North pay for the assault on Sony Pictures — and as part of a campaign to issue a broader warning against future hacking, according to senior administration officials.” But even the NYT is doubtful China will help.

So far, the Chinese have not responded. Their cooperation would be critical, since virtually all of North Korea’s telecommunications run through Chinese-operated networks.

It is unclear that China would choose to help, given tensions over computer security between Washington and Beijing since the Justice Department in May indicted five hackers working for the Chinese military on charges of stealing sensitive information from American companies.

If the diplomatic request doesn’t work the lawyers may reach for something stronger. The administration said the Sony caper “could land Pyongyang back on the administration’s terror list, a designation lifted by the Bush administration in 2008 during nuclear talks”.  Take that Pyongyang,  even though you only committed “cybervandalism”.

The sole sovereign of the United States will give you what-for, even though he is having a hard time characterizing what he is wroth at; or who he should hold accountable and what to do about it in any event. It’s a problem in three variables and only one given equation.

At all events it is not North Korea, but a shadowy group called the “Guardians of the Peace” who are guilty for the Sony intrusion. The name is obviously an alias, to cleverly disguise either the GOP or Republican Party or a militia group by the same name in Burundi. “The government has published no total for the numbers of guardians in Burundi, but in a letter of early September 2001, a Burundian major knowledgeable about the program wrote that some 30,000 Burundians had received military training as Guardians of the Peace.”

But even this act of detection goes but a little way. The absence of a term for conflict, the absence of a name for cross border attacks and the lack of an avowal suitably inscribed in parchment has stymied the lawyers in the administration. It’s not in their checklist of responses. They are like the Robot in Lost in Space, milling its arms around saying “danger! Will Robinson. It does not compute!”  The  tune requested is not in the bureaucratic juke-box.

This absence of a framework, the inability to perceive “enemies” — even the very term has been declared obsolete in this post-Cold War World — has reduced the sole sovereign to apparent impotence. There is no doubt Sony has  taken a big financial hit. “The World War II film Fury, currently in release, is among the films apparently released by hackers on file-sharing sites, as are the soon-to-be-released remake Annie, Mr. Turner, To Write Love on Her Arms, and Still Alice, according to a report by Variety on Saturday. By Sunday, Fury had been downloaded more than 1.2 million times, according to figures provided to Variety by the German IT forensics firm Excipio.”

Losing five films and being unable to sue anyone must hurt. But those losses would be small potatoes beside the potential consequences of an attack on electric utilities, banks or health care institutions.  A good cyberattack is like an EMP bomb. The Sony losses must run into the hundreds of millions.  But it could be much worse.

The Washington Post notes the health care sector is wide-open to hackers. “A year-long examination of cybersecurity by The Washington Post has found that health care is among the most vulnerable industries in the country, in part because it lags behind in addressing known problems.” Gizmodo says “Hospital Hacks Are Skyrocketing Because Hospitals Are Super Easy to Hack”. Wired writes “It’s Insanely Easy to Hack Hospital Equipment”.

Get the picture?  And should cities be plunged into darkness or patients wiped out, what does the sole sovereign call it? Cyber-jaywalking?  And where do we find the Guardians of the Peace in order to stop them?  Or does the sole sovereign just get on national TV and exhort everyone to stand up, be counted and never give in — before flying off to Hawaii for a vacation?

Well if that’s all the sole sovereign can think of, then why not consider a more forceful alternative.  How about hiring the Justice League of America, who now have day jobs on Playstation Portable Systems, to take on the Guardians of the Peace?  There may be many mild mannered programmers in the CIA, NSA, FBI and DOD, not to mention the PSP who are secretly Batman, Superman, Wonderwoman and the Flash by night.  This may be happening even as we speak, except that nobody talks about it.

Maybe invisible supervillains can only be countered by invisible superheroes, if only to give them pause.  You have got to make the Guardians of the Peace worry; to ponder each time they get into the elevator in the high rise building which serves as their secret hacker’s headquarters, whether the lift might not suddenly plunge straight into the parking basement.

This mutual fear was a concept known during the Cold War as deterrence.  Back in those long ago days there were armies of the night also except they wore fatigues, not lycra. And the armies of the night held each other in check. Fortunately the Cold War is over. Castro is our friend and nobody needs deterrence any more.  Or so they say.

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