First in warfare and domestic spying

As most readers know, the United States was the first — and still the only — country to use atomic weapons against another country.

Now I am very unhappy to report that the United States is the first country to engage is cyber warfare against another country.

For several years we have been the first country to engage in drone warfare in other nations’ sovereign territory. Now, the Obama administration is proudly leaking the fact that the president sits down on a weekly basis to decide who will be assassinated by the drones. As the Nation magazine points out, President Obama has now become the assassin-in-chief.

Who cares, you say. After all, the president is mostly targeting bad guys. Do you care that drones are now being used to spy on you in the United States? Meanwhile, the NSA is building a massive domestic spying center in Utah. One of the clear purposes of the center is to spy on your e-mail and blog posts (ahem!) and phone calls.

This is clearly a brave new world, a world where the United States engages in all kinds of firsts. The country with the first Constitution intended to protect individual liberty has now become first in warfare and first in developing the 21st century technological apparatus to destroy liberty.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “First in warfare and domestic spying

  1. These nonpartisan programs and technologies allow very accurate targeting and delivery of ordinance creating the potential to limit collateral damage and limit the scale of war and they create a powerful deterrent.  But they require oversight to limit abuse and it is the lack of meaningful oversight that concerns me the most.

  2. Nonpartisan? Unfortunately, bipartisan. People who think these technologies and methods are benevolent or morally neutral need to keep in mind that we cannot guarantee that somebody we don’t trust will likely become president in the future. Liberals should worry about a possible President John Bolton and conservatives should worry about a possible President Debbie Wasserman Shultz. I don’t like the idea of either of them having the right to kill people and spy on them at will.

  3. Yes, bipartisan would have been a better choice. Given human nature yes the risk of abuse exists on both sides of the aisle.

  4. Power to kill is not morally neutral—it corrupts. Nobody—not even people we trust—should have the powers that Geoff mentioned in the post. I, with Spencer W. Kimball and others, believe that nuclear weapons are in and of themselves evil, as well as the increased power to invade privacy that we are seeing today.

  5. Pretty much, Mark N. I remember reading warnings about overreacting to 9/11, just as we overreacted in the Civil War (thousands thrown in prison for no good reason, suspension of habeus corpus) and World War I (thousands more thrown in prison for opposing the war) and World War II (Japanese concentration camps). It appears that when there is a threat people are willing to throw away their liberty for a little security. Increasingly, we have neither.

  6. Geoff B,

    One quibble. The Stuxnet worm is the first instance in which a country (in this case it was the US and Israel) has admitted to cyber warfare. Not only do I doubt that it is the first case of cyber warfare, I doubt it is the first time the US has used it.

    Civil liberties have taken a nose dive for the past 11 years. I had hoped that Obama would be better. I have no hope that Romney would be better.

    The failure of SOPA is one of the few bright spots in recent years.

  7. “Now I am very unhappy to report that the United States is the first country to engage is cyber warfare against another country.”

    No. Russia/Georgia kinetic conflict included a cyber component. Chinese INFOWAR capabilities and actions are well documented for well over a decade.

    There has been no substantive indications Stuxnet came from U.S. or Israeli government sources.

    The “Flame” malicious software is moderately interesting in both the pure size (over 20 megs) and that it uses Lua- a programming language normally seen in video games and similar. While freely granting it could be a governmental attack of some kind – I would suggest excessing speculation to the extent in the OP borders on paranoia without a benefit of seeing clearly.


  8. Geoff, I can understand how one might fault the US for building and using nuclear weapons. But I don’t understand how one can fault a government for using cyber warfare to prevent nuclear proliferation.

    Are you suggesting that the US is morally obligated to allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon, even when there are safe, subversive technical means to halt such a program? It seems to me in this case that the greater good of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons would greatly outweigh any ambivalent questions of civil liberties.

    And what exactly are the legal and moral ramifications of inter-state cyber activity? Can online activities constitute as “acts of war?” Julian Assange was a self proclaimed moral champion of individual freedom, yet he used subversive means to cyber attack governments. Can’t governments do the same? We know that China tries to spy on us online. Don’t we necessarily need to spy back? And who sets the new rules in this very new arena of cyber-espionage?

  9. It’s a bit strange that we’re more worried about weapons that kill precisely than those that kill indiscriminately. Although the post does rightly point out concern over nuclear weapons, we’ve had weapons that can wipe out entire nations for some time, and our leaders have been “trusthworthy” with them. I’m not saying I’m pleased they exist, but I don’t know of any alternative to wind back the clock… The revelations predicted wars and terrible events would unfold upon the nations as they rejected the restored gospel and that process started well over 100 years ago.

    The President right now can order a missile strike that would kill hundreds or millions. Now he has the ability to order a missile strike to kill individuals. I’m not jumping for joy at the prospect for either, but the latter does not seem like more of a cause for alarm.

    I think what seems most alarming about it is the targeted way it is done. But I really don’t understand why we should be more upset about a smaller, drone that carries a 100lb targeted missile, compared to a larger bomber or ship that carries a 3000lb targeted cruise missile.

  10. If the 3000lb targeted cruise missile was being used on a regular basis, then we’d be more upset about it than about the drones. The problem is not in what the President -can- do (which is debatable), but in what the President -is- doing.

    I don’t think the cyber attacks are without physical vitims either. The one against Iran’s nuclear system caused nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control until they broke into pieces while their instruments show no problem. You can’t justify hacking computers that control physical machines by saying “well no one -really- got hurt”.

  11. I will cede the point on cyber warfare. It is probably true that Russian spies and U.S. spies engaged in cyber warfare during the cold war as well. I still don’t like it, and I think it has the potential to create extremely nasty problems. When an enemy hacks our electrical grid and cuts off the power for a week during a blizzard, perhaps we will become more concerned about such kind of warfare. There is, of course, the horrible prospect of destroying stock market trading and other havoc that would be at least as damaging as 9/11. I feel like we are a bit like the advanced aliens attacking during “War of the Worlds” — we have technology to take over the world but are still susceptible to seemingly harmless viruses.

    As for the drones, I don’t have much of a problem using drones to target specific enemies that are attacking the United States. Just to throw out a hopefully fantasy scenario, let’s say China attacks the United States, and Congress declares a defensive war and we use drones to fight back. No problem. But currently we are using the drones indiscriminately to attack buildings and cars and other targets in a long list of sovereign nations *where we have never declared war*. There have already been hundreds if not thousands of casualties among the innocent who happened to be near a supposed bad guy when we attacked. Do we think this there are no consequences to this behavior? We are probably creating more terrorists than we are killing. If my wife were killed by a Chinese drone because she happened to be in the parking lot at the same time a “terrorist” was there, I would not take it lying down. I would consider it a declaration of war against me and my family. I don’t think we can ignore the collateral damage we are creating.

  12. Geoff –
    When you say, “As for the drones, I don’t have much of a problem using drones to target specific enemies that are attacking the United States.” — Isn’t that what we are doing? Pres. Obama campaigned on peace and ending wars, and he got into the position he is in and saw that perhaps the decisions Pres. Bush was making were actually necessary evils.

    I agree with you about concern over the collateral injuries/deaths — although to be fair you might assume the kids raised in the house of a terrorist mastermind would have an already high probability of growing up to want to kill Americans (not saying we should kill them in advance though, or even that it’s a predetermined outcome). But I’m not sure how we declare war against bad guys in Yemen. There are presumably good and bad people in the governments of Pakistan, Yemen, etc. We can’t exactly just let them know there is a bad guy living in the house on 1273 Olive Tree Court, and trust them to handle it when some well positioned individuals in these governments have shown a tendency to warn the bad guy. You also can’t declare war against Yemen or Pakistan for having bad guys that live there (or are you suggesting we should?). And finally, the act of declaring war against “Bad guys who materially threaten us wherever they be” would seem to be a strange formality that would still have us taking action in sovereign nations.

    I suppose the effective response the government makes behind the scenes to these nations is… “since you can’t clean up the swamp that is festering within your borders, we will take action against those individuals when it threatens us, but we will not consider your nation to be our enemy” (it’s a fine line to walk) Comparing the sovereignty of the central government in Pakistan with the sovereignty of the USA is certainly charitable but probably not accurate.

    So what do you suggest is the course of action we take with people inside of dysfunctional or unreliable states who want and are planning on killing Americans?

    After writing all of that, I get the sense that perhaps you’d be more constitutionally “ok”, (while remaining morally unenthusiastic) if the Congress specifically authorized the President to use these “tools” to go after specific targets with a limit duration and scope. I’d probably agree with that as a solution. I think you’d end up making a revolving door program of intelligence analysts saying to Congress, “We want to authorize the Pres. to go after these guys” and Congress would have to consider and pretty much rubber stamp it… but the end result would be similar, although the process might seems more accountable.

  13. Frank,
    Regarding being more upset if cruise missiles were used a lot, here is a list of heavy cruise missiles fired during what I’d call “non-major” combat operations:

    Jan. 17, 1993 Southern Watch Iraq 45
    June 26, 1993 Bushwhacker Iraq 23
    Sep. 10, 1995 Deliberate Force Bosnia 13
    Sep. 3-4, 1996 Desert Strike Iraq 44
    Aug. 20, 1998 Resolute Response Afghan., Sudan 79
    Dec. 17-20, 1998 Desert Fox Iraq 415
    Mar. 24-Apr. 16, 1999* Allied Force Yugoslavia 210

    That seems like a lot of missiles used. So over a period of 30 or so days you have 829,000lbs of remotely targeted ordinance.

    In the last 8 years, there have been 300 drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan — an area where we are pretty much at war. And over this period of 8 years, let’s just figure 200 days of drone strikes you have 30,000lbs of targeted ordinance. Admittedly, that’s not everything, and it’s not the only place. But I can’t help but think drones are better than cruise missiles when it comes to considering the potential human costs.

    I’m not suggesting we should be reckless in their use or in the authorization of using them. I just think it’s odd to get really worked up by drones all of the sudden.

  14. Oh, and fitting in with the title of the post, at least the USA wasn’t the first to invent the targeted cruise missile.

  15. Chris, the last paragraph of your #13 posits a possible solution that is much better than where we are today. I would feel better, and it would be more in line with the Constitution, for us to have congressional discussions on the limits of the war. The battlefield has changed since 2001/2002, and Congress should be consulted again.

    In a general sense, I strongly believe a changed foreign policy, with a much smaller U.S. footprint, would lessen the threat, not increase it. The U.S. should close most of its bases in the Middle East and make it clear that if Middle Eastern countries leave us alone we will leave them alone. Perhaps we need a bigger Navy and Air Force (more mobile) and a smaller Army. I can see us dealing with potential threats from our Naval fleet but mostly staying out of the various conflicts roiling the Middle East because *the vast majority of the activities don’t directly threaten the U.S. homeland.*

    The Obama administration has made some half-hearted efforts in this direction, but the surge in Afghanistan and our continued presence there after the death of OBL are a huge mistake.

  16. I think a big problem comes when we run short on legitimate high value drone targets and the system begins to stretch in order to justify it’s own existence. Will we then be blowing up petty criminals and political dissidents? Will the conclusions of the more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus who gather, by secure video teleconference or some group like them be found to legally constitute the 5th amendment right to due process? Without meaningful oversight it becomes a slippery slope.

  17. Now I am very unhappy to report that the United States is the first country to engage is cyber warfare against another country.

    USA! USA!

    Kidding, I’m unhappy too that we got caught.

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