Wednesday, April 08, 2009


On Monday DD regaled readers with a two-part series on American electromagnetic pulse crazies -- those who feel certain the country's electronic and computing infrastructure will be destroyed in a future terror attack.

Today the frontpage of the Wall Street Journal delivered another flavor of Fortress America under siege voodoo, this time on spies from Russia and China who had allegedly infiltrated the power grid and installed malicious software. Everything was put at risk, from power to water and sewage. The United States, it was implied, could be turned off like a light switch.

This type of news story, like those on EMP crazies, also enjoys a rich history. It plays to the theme of paranoid survivalism, one which imagines enemies everywhere with the resources to do anything, their power virtually limitless. It relies upon the vague idea that if spyware can be installed on your computer, more or less at will depending on your diligence, you'll accept that even more malicious software will have penetrated into everything and that, not only can we not stop it, we can only await its inevitable terrible awakening.

Like the pieces on EMP crazies, it insults the intelligence of the reader by asking one to imagine a country in which everyone is struck by the lightning of unseen disaster at once. It embellishes this fancy by utterly ignoring reality, employing 'experts' to describe what modern America would be like without electricity, suddenly thrust back in time to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In fact, in response to the Wall Street Journal piece, this is exactly what ABC News did a couple hours ago.

Imagine what your day would be like if Russia or China turned off all our power, mused reporters Ned Porter and Jonann Brady: "You turn on your lights in the morning to find that they, and virtually everything else, have been shut down by cyberspies."

And such a story is incomplete without an 'expert' to say it's all possible.

Enter Richard A. Clarke, a famous man -- a political celebrity, really -- with a long history of foretelling that when the lights go out from cyberattack, terrible things will happen.

"I think the government has known for several years that China and Russia and other countries have created offensive cyberwar units and have penetrated American networks, including the electric power grid, which is pretty easy to penetrate," Clarke was said to have said today.

If this sounds numbingly repetitive, yes, it is. DD wrote about it just in January here.

"In addition to the regular flogging of the meme that it's easy for terrorists to [fill in the blank], another aspect of predator state 'security' practice is the dissemination of jumped-up apocalyptic threats -- practically speaking, a relentless bullshitting of the populace over matters of national security," reads that post's lede.

"Regularly done to massage requests for funding, it also serves political purposes."

"Joel Brenner, the 'government's top cyber security official ... believes that water and sewer systems, electricity grids, air and ground traffic control, and financial markets are all possible targets.'"

And if take the WayBack Machine on a journey to 1999, there's Richard A. Clarke at the helm, again warning about America being turned off by a magic switch.

From an interview conducted by Signal magazine:

"Without computer-controlled networks, there is no water coming out of your tap; there is no electricity lighting your room; there is no food being transported to your grocery store; there is no money coming out of your bank; there is no 911 system responding to emergencies; and there is no Army, Navy and Air Force defending the country . . . All of these functions, and many more, now can only happen if networks are secure and functional.

"A systematic [attack] could come from a terrorist group, a criminal cartel or a foreign nation . . . and we do know of foreign nations that are interested in our information infrastructure and are developing offensive capabilities that would allow them to take down sectors of our information infrastructure ... Envision all of these things happening simultaneously - electricity going out in several major cities; telephones failing in some regions; 911 service being down in several metropolitan areas. If all of that were to happen simultaneously, it could create a great deal of disruption, hurt the economy . . . "

This was non-fiction. Clarke also delivers similar material in techno-thriller novels. His first, The Scorpion's Gate, was delivered hot on the heels of his appearance on 60 Minutes to tell the country that George W. Bush had ignored his warnings about al Qaeda. That novel was a best-seller. The second, delivered after the klieg lights had moved on, was called Breakpoint and was not nearly as successful.

Returning to the Wall Street Journal article, one observes it fails to deliver even one named source.

"Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and former national-security officials," reads its opening sentence.

"Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, the senior intelligence official said ... Officials said water, sewage and other infrastructure systems also were at risk ... Officials cautioned that the motivation of the cyberspies wasn't well understood, and they don't see an immediate danger."

'Officials said' said the Wall Street Journal, repeatedly. With so many 'officials saying' one is often reminded of other instances in which news describing great menace have been planted on the frontpage of receptive organs for the purpose of frightening Congressmen, the President's advisers, or industry -- to soften them up for the more strict implementation of new security measures. Or simply for the sake of creating the impression that the current administration is not doing enough to protect Americans from catastrophe.

The reader is left with a few handy rules of thumb. Is it all true? Is only some of it true? Or is it all exaggeration? One again employs the yardstick of describing it as a collection of things both interesting and true, except that the interesting parts are most certainly not true and the true parts are, in all probability, not interesting. And it's pointless, even impossible, to sort it all out because such stories are precisely engineered to resist validation.

However, a central thesis that agents from Russia and China are on the prowl within our networks is a common one. And they are always involved in something particularly menacing. The Department of Defense often names these chimerical happenings, and one of the more famous ones was dubbed Moonlight Maze.

Again, using the Wayback Machine, one quotes from
an essay
on the infowar and virus hysteria debunking website VMYTHS:

"Since 1999, all -- and does mean all stories about Moonlight Maze have been characterized by their reliance upon gossip and speculation; their complete lack of precise definition in the who, what and where categories (often rationalized by their existence as classified matters for discussion only behind closed doors); repetition, a preponderance of anonymous sources speculating or expostulating for journalists and screechy, florid claims about the dire consequences for national security."

(You can even download an old humorous MP3 DD made to accompany the essay!)

A larger issue -- much larger than any theoretical threat posed by notional Chinese and Russian cyberspies -- is the one in which we have a press that continually flogs such stories into the mainstream. That is, in a country beset with countless tangible problems, it chooses to continue to allow itself, even enjoys, being a conduit for 'news' which suspiciously appears to be engineered by only a few sources. And these sources are allowed, even encouraged, to go about planting things because they know they will never be called to book for it and because the stories, outrageous as they are, guarantee eyeballs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

With 3 fmr conservative heads of state of latin america coming out in February for some sort of legalization of drugs and calling for the u.s. to accept a paradigm shift, with the GAO declaring in November 2008 Plan Colombia a failure, and with unprecedented mobilization against neoliberal trade throughout Latin America especially in Mexico, compromised defense flunkies (i.e. "message multipliers") decided to boost the meme of our porous southern border and spillover violence. They focused on a report by the discredited fmr drug czar (see
and McCaffrey (and other unscrupulous types benefiting from the 'failed war on drugs' and invented facts to scare the fearless American viewer/reader (!

5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

please do read this:

5:45 AM  

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