There were two interesting news stories last Thursday plus a couple of others during the week, all of which combine to tell an awkward tale about the United States government’s perception of itself and its willingness to engage in acts of preemptive aggression that most other governments would balk at. One headline article described in some detail how the United States is building up its ability to engage in cyber warfare, referred to as Cyber “Plan X,” a “new phase in the nation’s fledgling military operations in cyber space.” The article went on to explain that “cyberwarfare conjures images of smoking servers, downed electrical systems, and exploding industrial plants,” but its battlefield use would be more focused even though it is fighting in a “global domain that includes tens of billions of computers and other devices.” Near the end, the article notes that “cyberwar experts worry about unintended consequences of attacks” because “the military needs more of a brute force approach that allows it to get at a thousand targets as quickly as possible.”
But flipping through to page 10 in the same newspaper, one learned that there would be congressional hearings because “tech giants warn of threats to free and profitable Internet,” with the first paragraph reading “U.S. officials and high tech business giants have launched an assault against what they view as a massive threat to the Internet and to Silicon Valley’s bottom lines: foreign governments.” Yes indeed, after learning on page one that the United States is gearing up for cyber warfare on a scale unimaginable for any other nation, we are then told that the real threat to cyberspace consists of foreigners — most particularly the Russians, Chinese, and some Arabs. It seems that they want to have more say in how the Internet is organized and regulated, possibly through the United Nations or international communications agreements, because “the Internet has been heavily influenced by U.S. firms and American academics, who set the standards.”
And if you think that there is no connection between Google’s concerns over its “bottom line” and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense defines cyberspace as the “domain characterized by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to store, modify, and exchange data via network systems and associated physical infrastructures.” That definition includes the Internet and all associated electronic communications as well as the companies that are involved in the telecommunications business.
The United States long sought to control the Internet and cyberspace, but the arguments pro and con eventually became moot when, on March 16, 2012, President Obama issued an executive order, “National Defense Resources Preparedness,” which gives him the authority to take control of any national resource if there is a state of emergency as defined by the president himself. The Internet, as part of the country’s communications infrastructure, is most definitely regarded as a national resource. The emergency decisions made by the president are not subject to judicial review, meaning that the executive both defines the problem and dictates the solution. After he has done so, he cannot be challenged by the courts. Based on recent developments and anticipating what might be around the corner, just how long do you think it would take for Obama to shut down the Internet on the grounds that “terrorists” might be using it to communicate?
And there are persistent reports that the United States has also been working to develop an Internet kill switch, though the expression itself has not appeared in any actual or proposed legislation. The Protecting Cyberspace Act of 2010, which never made it out of Congress, was touted as a defensive measure that would only be used if the system were under attack and could not otherwise be protected. But the involvement of sponsor Sen. Joe Lieberman, who favors restrictions on civil liberties in support of the so-called war on terror, suggested otherwise.
There are also plans afoot within the Obama administration for an Internet ID card, somewhat akin to the demands for a forge-proof national identity document that is being promoted as a tool against terrorism and illegal immigration. To make the national ID card functional, a great deal of new information would be required to make it safe against fraud. The new information would certainly include biometrics of the bearer, but it would also mean registration of residence and workplace as well as marital status. It is not clear how all the personal information would be protected. Experience suggests that even countries that have national ID cards, such as Germany and China, still have immigration and terrorism problems, and it has proven impossible to identify a single instance in which a national ID card actually was instrumental in identifying a terrorist or impeding a terrorist act. So much for the national ID, but it would certainly be a great new opening for taxpayer supported government jobs and would create an enormous new database of information on hundreds of millions of American citizens.
An Internet ID card would, at a stroke, eliminate the anonymity of the Internet, reducing its viability as a center for free discussion and information sharing. That is precisely what the promoters of the ID are seeking to do — essentially establishing accountability and government regulation of a medium that has lacked those attributes. Internet servers in Germany already are required to retain records for six months, and computers and users are required to register. That is also true to a lesser extent in many countries in Europe, including Italy and France. There have also been calls to tax the Internet, which would effectively bring in the same controls. A government-issued ID or the authority to tax based on use would dramatically change the nature of the Internet, as it would open the door for the government to monitor how people use the medium and how they communicate. If the American people think it can’t happen here, they are dead wrong. Every action taken by the U.S. government over the past 10 years has resulted in restrictions on freedom, underlying the irony of Washington representing itself as the source of Internet freedom.
Two other recent news articles explore the nature of the threat coming directly out of the Obama administration. The first described how the FBI has formed a secret surveillance unit that will be developing and employing new technologies to monitor communications nationwide and in real time. The center is referred to as the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, as good a euphemism for government snooping as has ever existed. Congress has funded the center with $54 million, and the Bureau reportedly has warned companies such as Facebook that they should not oppose impending legislation that will permit the FBI to operate a technological back door in their software that will enable the government to monitor their members’ communications.
And for those who are still skeptics, the second article demonstrates that the cyberwar is already here. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has been waging aggressive cyberwar against Iran since 2008, complete with the creation of sophisticated Stuxnet and Flame viruses in government labs that have spread to personal and business computers worldwide. The program, which began under President George W. Bush, was accelerated by Obama after he took office, similar to his orders to increase the numbers of drone attacks in Pakistan. Lest anyone be confused by what is taking place, the computer attacks are undeniably an act of war without any declaration of war.
But the pièce de résistance for the week has to be a seemingly unrelated story about the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian, to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who famously stated that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to sanctions was “worth it.” President Obama, in a White House ceremony, honored Albright because her “courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world.” He said it with a straight face, and, more frighteningly, he might actually have believed what he was saying. If there was ever a blatant example of U.S. government hypocrisy, this was it: a mass murderer presenting a medal to another mass murderer. Wage war for humanitarian reasons but kill the children. Promote the freedom of the Internet but secretly make it a weapon of war and figure out how to shut it down. All in a day’s work in the Imperial City.
The American exceptionalism being boasted about by Republicans and Democrats alike is at the root of aberrant political class behavior, visible to anyone who cares to look. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, but in today’s America even the man with one eye is lacking. It is clear to the world that there is no limit to Washington’s hypocrisy, but the media and Congress march briskly forward with the White House promoting a policy of war by other means all the time and everywhere. It is a recipe for disaster, which has already borne fruit in terms of lost liberties, a shattered economy, and a sharp decline in most countries’ respect for the American government and people. That a president can declare secret war on a country that does not threaten it, that the federal government can create mechanisms to attack the entire world electronically while at the same time making plans for depriving its own people of the ability to share ideas and thoughts freely is disgraceful. And awarding the highest civilian medal to a self-proclaimed baby killer who epitomizes the decay of our republic should be a moment of shame rather than celebration.