TCS Daily

Small Dangers

By Patrick Cox - March 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Promoting his homeland security program, President Bush warned recently, "The world changed on September 11th, 2001. We learned that a threat that gathers on the other side of the earth can strike our own cities and kill our own citizens ... Oceans no longer protect America from the dangers of this world."

Of course, oceans haven't protected the U.S. since October 4th, 1957 when Sputnik was launched into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan - proving the USSR could deliver an atomic weapon anywhere on earth. There is, however, truth in the president's allusion.

The world has changed, and Americans are threatened by forces that were formerly unable to strike U.S. soil with any real effect. This change has been wrought by an array of extremely powerful tools that have devolved into the hands of the masses - including terrorists.

The diffusion of modern technologies provided the 9/11 attackers with electronic bank transfers, satellite phones and e-mail as well as video cameras and tapes used for recruitment, fundraising and public relations. Flight simulator software, the PCs that run it, and, of course, modern jetliners made the attacks possible.

Perhaps the president should have said that our ubiquitous technological milieu has provided terrorists the tools to launch remote attacks on a scale previously reserved to governments, creating a whole new set of problems we were utterly unprepared for - such as bathroom ricin labs and 37 cent stamp anthrax delivery systems.

In the good old days of Mutually Assured Destruction, the chain-of-command behind an assassination might go undiscovered, but large-scale operations by Soviet client states were obvious and entailed the risk of U.S. retaliation on both the proxy and the Kremlin - as demonstrated by the Cuban missile crisis. Terrorist groups, though, can exist outside national boundaries, so determining the identity of an attacker is not as simple as back-tracking ICBM trajectories using radar and satellite images.

According to statements by Osama bin Laden to his followers, he believed the U.S. lacked the resolve to invade Afghanistan and oust his Taliban protectors, but terrorists will not make the same mistake again. Even without a physical headquarters, Bali, Kenya and the Philippines have suffered serious attacks. The Kenyan strike was notable, by the way, for an associated attempt to bring down an airliner using a shoulder-mounted missile - another example of technology endowing individuals with power once belonging solely to national militaries.

The more problematic and frightening flip side of transnational terrorism scenario is that of a hostile country, with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, secretly bankrolling and arming such a group, or even masquerading as one. Concerns over this possibility, in particular, are behind the most profound changes in America's defense and intelligence policies in a generation - including "pre-emptive" Iraqi regime change.

It is important to understand how integral technology is to these political shifts, because the rate of scientific innovation continues to accelerate rapidly - along with the unintended consequences.

For example, both Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have spoken of Iraqi development of unmanned aerial vehicles, sophisticated model planes actually, equipped with easily acquired GPS locators and sprayers capable of delivering poisons or biological agents to strategic U.S. locations. Though both warned that these UAVs could be disassembled and smuggled into the United States, a clever terrorist could probably construct most or all of such a craft, miniaturizing the 9/11 jetliner attacks, with parts from Radio Shack and a neighborhood hobby shop.

The New Reality

This is the new reality, and it behooves us to consider the future impact of the really big technologies - especially nano- and biotech.

Michael Crichton's latest exploitation of techno-dread, "Prey," posits a floating swarm of intelligent and hostile nanomachines. Neal Stephenson had taken the concept further in "The Diamond Age," imagining massive self-replicating, evolving killer nanotech fogs, battled by defensive versions of the same.

Another vision put forth by futurists involved in nanotech research is of personal synthesizers, as common as color printers, within which molecular assemblers in vats of cheap raw materials build virtually anything, including advanced weaponry, from blueprints traded freely on the Web.

Even if such ominous predictions are wrong, future technologies will continue to deliver greater and greater individual power - capable of being turned to malevolent uses. Given human nature, I cannot believe that Islamofascism will either go away soon or be the last serious threat to Western civilization.

So what are the policy implications?

Calls for prohibitions on nano- and biotech research cannot be successful, if only because good tech will be required to fight bad tech. We are involved in a new arms race and cannot count on having enemies as inept or hostile to modernity as Islamists.

Presumably, treaties and other agreements will attempt to make the misuse of such technology less likely, but any organization with the resources of an al Qaeda will be able to circumvent them. Holding governments responsible, as President Bush has pledged to do, for terrorism launched from within their borders, is only a partial solution. Moreover, it will require effective intelligence resources even to determine the source of attacks, and prevention even more so.

Though it goes against the grain of many of those who are most enthusiastic about the promise of technology, it appears to me that the role of both intelligence gathering and covert operations, with all the serious problems that come with organizations shrouded in secrecy, will increase in importance both in absolute terms as well as in relation to conventional military forces.

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