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Archive for May, 2007

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to go back 70 years and see a parallel to an event of today, but the old saying “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it” still holds true. The Spanish Civil War that started in 1936 turned out to be, in hindsight, a warmup match for the Second World War, with the major combatants trying out their new equipment and tactics in some real fighting. The Germans debuted the Bf-109 and the Ju-52, which were later used with such devastating effectiveness against the rest of Europe a few years later. And both sides in the war made the concept of “total war” into reality, as they attacked non-engaged civilians, undefended cities, and priests in a repudiation of the age-old army-against-army approach to battle.

OK, so here’s the parallel. Starting on April 27th the little Baltic republic of Estonia became target of a massive Internet-based distributed denial-of-service attack that targeted government offices, then banks, Internet companies, political parties, news organizations, and other commercial targets. The attacks continued into late May, arriving in waves of increasing heights, often successfully swamping the targeted sites.

What apparently triggered this business was the Estonian government’s decision to move a memorial to Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis to a less prominent placement in the capital city of Tallinn. Estonia has a large Russian minority who saw this as an affront, while the ethnic Estonians see the monument as a reminder of 50 years of brutal Soviet occupation of their country.

According to Estonian sources inside and outside the government, the initial attack IPs were from Russian servers, and instructions on conducting a DDOS attack against Estonia were posted on several Russian sites. Later the attack was broadened to include over a million machines, obviously recruited from captive botnets. All this is serious business for Estonia, which although it is a pretty small country, is second to nobody in the technology department including being the hub of Skype.

So why should we care? Because the Internet is going to be a major front in conflicts of the future, far more so that now. Amazingly enough even to a technologist like me, in the last 10 years our economy and indeed even our society is becoming highly dependent on the Internet as a transport vehicle for all kinds of services, including (very unfortunately) VOIP telephone service. Now here we have an example of an initial deployment of such weapons against a political entity. Well, better than launching a missile, I guess, but are we as a country ready to respond successfully? Very much unclear at this point. Given the Bush administration’s response to things like Katrina, and their propensity of looting government programs, I’m not confident.

The Estonians have contacted NATO, of which they are a member, but the status of a cyber-attack as a hostile action (in NATO’s terms) is unclear. And, more seriously, although this is clearly triggered by a political issue with a government (Russia), it seems unclear that the Russians are directly involved in it, except for perhaps encouraging it. Nationalist groups within Russia could certainly have carried this out easily by themselves — the cost of recruiting a botnet of even a million computers is measured in the low tens of thousands of dollars.

A senior NATO official stated, “This clearly bore the hallmarks of something concerted. The Estonians are not alone with this problem. It really is a serious issue for the alliance as a whole.”

And for us, as a whole.

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Although the official position of the Bush Administration seems to be that global warming just isn’t real, or if it is, it will be good for us, I’m heartened to note that at least some in our government are starting to consider how all this could impact — as in: negatively — our security situation here at home. If we think we have problems with political and social unrest in the middle-east and Africa, I would invite you to consider the implications of half-a-billion people throughout the world on the move because their homes are under the sea now, and they have no food or water. This would be destabilization on a scale we can hardly imagine.

There’s been a fringe undercurrent of concern: in 2003 the Pentagon commissioned a study on the impact of sudden climate change, but this had no discernible impact on the Administration’s thinking, although it does make a good read. But now both our military and our intelligence agencies have suddenly “come to” and decided that, regardless of the political current against admitting that global warming might even be happening, that this needs to be looked at, and right away. Hats off to them, but it’s about time.

So what are these signs of nascent consciousness? Well, in March of 2007 the Army War College put on a two day symposium entitled (oddly enough) “The National Security Implications of Global Climate Change.” Good start, anyway. Then in April, a group of senior active and retired military personnel submitted a report (prepared by the Center for Naval Analysis) that states without pulling any punches: “Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security” and “Climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges” (download the report here).

Then, on 5/11/07, Michael McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, stated in a letter to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that he considered it entirely appropriate that future National Intelligence Estimates should consider the impact of climate change in their assessments. Unfortunately, and entirely predictably, the White House and a number of Congressional Republicans immediately criticized this position, and worked aggressively in Congress to prevent it’s inclusion in an intelligence appropriation bill. Fortunately, the house later voted 230 to 185 to keep it in.

The White House’s reasoning for this disapproval included the concept that to consider the security implications of climate change in a NIE would divert the intelligence community’s resources from Iraq and Afghanistan. Considering what our senior military leaders are saying about the danger of global warming to us, maybe we ought to call off Iraq (for example) to focus on figuring out this problem before it literally drowns us.

I am impressed that such senior people dare to speak out on a topic that the Administration continues to deny even exists, and continues to work full-bore to undercut any international steps to address. Encapsulating the Administration’s position is a remark by George Tenet, then Director of the CIA, deriding concern about global warming as nothing but “bugs and bunnies.” Once again, this position places us at odds with virtually all of the rest of the world, but thankfully the cracks in this facade are beginning to show.

Little note on the military impact of global warming: under almost any sea-level rising scenario, we will lose our base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia because it will be under water. It was from Diego Garcia that our B-52s departed to bomb Iraq in both installments of the Iraq war.

Another little note: my vote for some of the best ongoing reporting on global climate is the Washington Post Climate Page.

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Start out by remembering that “terrorism” is really just a tactic that various groups use to achieve their ends, it’s not a unifying political or social philosophy. Groups don’t just decide to become terrorists, they employ terrorism because it works to further their cause. There are other possible tactics; the PLO for most of it’s existence built it’s political base by running schools and opening health-care facilities in the occupied territories when the Israelis refused to do so. But if “terrorism” is a particularly barbaric set of tactics that we wish to discourage in the name of humanity, then we need to understand who is doing it and why.

I’ve posted several times regarding the problem with the Bush Administration’s simple-minded “us vs. the world” approach to dealing with terrorists, and argued that we need a more nuanced and localized analysis framework to understanding them, uncovering their motivations, and devising suitable strategies to combating them. Just click on the “terrorism” category to the right to read these earlier posts.

I just ran across a very clear and analytical viewpoint of terrorist types in an original article in Newsvine, by someone who writes under the name “Belarius,” and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you (I recommend Newsvine to you in general, but that’s another story).

For the purposes of his article, Belarius lumps various terrorist or terrorist-support organizations into these groups:

  1. Nationalist revolutionaries (the IRA, Hamas, and Basque separatists)
  2. International ideologues (al Qaeda)
  3. International mercenaries (Blackwater, and other “contractors” we employ in Iraq)
  4. Criminal organizations (mainly traffickers in drugs and women)
  5. Black-market weapons dealers
  6. Governmental organizations

The agendas of these groups sometimes are in alignment and sometimes diverge, and at the least are ever-shifting. Given all this, it’s no wonder that we are being unsuccessful in combating them with infantry and heavy weapons! And certainly the Bush Administration’s constant drumbeat against a single, unified “International Terrorist Organization” accomplishes nothing useful at all.

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