An Analysis of A Farewell to Arms

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  • Topic: United States Department of Defense, Cold War, Information warfare
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May 2007
A Farewell to Arms
By John Carlin
For those on the ramparts of the world's sole superpower, the digital winds are blowing an icy chill through the triumphant glow of the post-Cold War. People in Washington play lots of games, but none for higher stakes than The Day After. They played a version of it in the depths of the Cold War, hoping the exercise would shake loose some bright ideas for a US response to nuclear attack. They're playing it again today, but the scenario has changed - now they're preparing for information war.

The game takes 50 people, in five teams of ten. To ensure a fair and fruitful contest, each team includes a cross-section of official Washington - CIA spooks, FBI agents, foreign policy experts, Pentagon boffins, geopoliticos from the National Security Council - not the soldiers against the cops against the spies against the geeks against the wonks.

The Day After starts in a Defense Department briefing room. The teams are presented with a series of hypothetical incidents, said to have occurred during the preceding 24 hours. Georgia's telecom system has gone down. The signals on Amtrak's New York to Washington line have failed, precipitating a head-on collision. Air traffic control at LAX has collapsed. A bomb has exploded at an army base in Texas. And so forth.

The teams fan out to separate rooms with one hour to prepare briefing papers for the president. "Not to worry - these are isolated incidents, an unfortunate set of coincidences" is one possible conclusion. Another might be "Someone - we're still trying to determine who - appears to have the US under full-scale attack." Or maybe just "Round up the usual militia suspects."

The game resumes a couple of days later. Things have gone from bad to worse. The power's down in four northeastern states, Denver's water supply has dried up, the US ambassador to Ethiopia has been kidnapped, and terrorists have hijacked an American Airlines 747 en route from Rome. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the mullahs are stepping up their rhetoric against the "Great Satan": Iranian tanks are on the move toward Saudi Arabia. CNN's Christiane Amanpour, in a flak jacket, is reporting live outside the US embassy in Addis Ababa. ABC's Peter Jennings is quizzing George Stephanopoulos on the president's state of mind.

When suddenly, the satellites over North America all go blind ... God, Voltaire said, is on the side of the big battalions. Not any more, He ain't. Nor on the side of the richest or even - and this may surprise you - the most extravagantly well wired. Information technology is famously a great equalizer, a new hand that can tip the scales of power. And for those on the ramparts of the world's sole superpower, the digital winds are blowing an icy chill through the post- Cold War's triumphant glow.

Consider this litany. From former National Security Agency director John McConnell: "We're more vulnerable than any other nation on earth." Or former CIA deputy director William Studeman: "Massive networking makes the US the world's most vulnerable target" ("and the most inviting," he might have added). Or former US Deputy Attorney General Jaime Gorelick: "We will have a cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor at some point, and we do not want to wait for that wake-up call." And the Pentagon brass? They commissioned their old RAND think-tank friends, who combed through the Day After results and concluded, "The more time one spent on this subject, the more one saw tough problems lacking concrete solutions and, in some cases, lacking even good ideas about where to start." Not that nothing is being done. On the contrary, there's been a frenzy of activity, most of it little noticed by Washington at large. A presidential commission has been established; the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA have created their own specialist I-war teams; interagency bodies, complete with newly minted acronyms like IPTF (Infrastructure Protection Task Force) and CIWG (Critical Infrastructure Working...
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