World war 3.0

A new book on futuristic 'cyberwar' has an old-fashioned agenda.

By Andrew Leonard
Published July 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| At the outset of "The Next World War," author James Adams recounts a story from the days of the Persian Gulf war. It seems that CIA operatives loaded a computer virus into hardware destined for use by the Iraqi military. But just before the virus kicked in and began knocking Iraqi "command and control" networks off line, the air war began. A blizzard of bombs obliterated the building that housed the infected hardware. play

It's a great story -- the perfect preface for a book about how military tactics and strategy are being revolutionized by digital technology. But is it too good to be true? Like so many other interesting and alarming info-nuggets in "The Next World War," the anecdote is attributed to unnamed "intelligence" officers. And that should give pause. Who, in the age of "information warfare," is more likely to be a master of disinformation and deceit than an intelligence officer?

By Adams' definition, "information warfare" includes the management of media and popular perceptions as much as it does hard-coded weaponry like smart bombs or targeted viruses. So perhaps the question of whether the story is true is irrelevant. If America's enemies believe that the U.S. is capable of unleashing digital attacks on their telecom infrastructure or banking system, then the battle is already half won. Or, even closer to home, if the various wings of the military bureaucracy can convince Congress that computerized destabilization is a real threat, then their continued funding is assured for years to come.

Adams is a former defense correspondent for the London Sunday Times and the author of 12 books . One of his specialties is espionage, and his years of expertise and extended network of contacts bolster "The Next World War's" claim to insight. When he confines himself to discussing how the U.S. military services and intelligence agencies are coping with an age of fast-moving technological change and information-warfare issues, Adams is precise and informative. His analyses of the Gulf War and other '90s hot spots, such as Somalia and Bosnia, may not offer much that is particularly new, but they're still authoritative and interesting -- as are his rapturous descriptions of imminent advances in high-tech military hardware.

But when Adams actually attempts to live up to his title and talk about the specifics of cyber-warfare, he ventures onto shakier ground. His chapter on hackers is by far the weakest. First comes the tiresomely predictable stereotype of "hackers" as "brilliant, twisted and destructive." It certainly comes as no surprise that a mainstream journalist would misuse the word "hacker" -- which in its original sense meant anyone who enjoyed tinkering with computers but has now been adopted by the media to describe a malicious class of pimply teenage lawbreakers. But when such ignorance is combined with a stream of unsubstantiated allegations, the reader loses faith in the entire enterprise.

Adams tells us that in the early '80s the Soviet Union infected Wall Street's biggest banks with viruses "that would have taken down the banking system in the event of war." He claims that that phone companies are suffering "major losses" from "phone phreakers" and that hate groups are taking advantage of "this new wave in hacking power." But he doesn't offer any evidence. And to argue that the "Internet has become the communications tool of choice for terror/liberation groups across the globe" is simply warmed-over alarmism. The Internet is also the communications tool of choice for fans of Japanese animation, 3-D graphics specialists and lovers of stuffed animals. So what?

I am fully willing to believe that somewhere deep in the bowels of China, Russia, Iraq and the CIA, diabolical computer programmers are cooking up dastardly viruses aimed at sowing confusion and wreaking havoc. But I'd like to see some proof, other than anonymous assertions by NSA spooks or anecdotes about 16-year-old boys fooling around with unclassified documents on a U.S. Air Force computer.

Malevolent hacking isn't really what "The Next World War" is about, anyway, despite the book's own marketing hype. Adams' real concern is with military preparedness and the possibilities for resolving conflict in an age where neither the military nor the political leadership is prepared to wage war if there is a chance of suffering casualties: "With a military that only wanted to fight wars where no one got hurt, advocates of information warfare found a ready audience for what they had to offer."

The promise of fighting battles via the computer chip and the guided missile, rather than with bayonet and AK-47, is seductive. In an era of military downsizing in which countries like the U.S. are led by a political generation that has no experience of a real war (something that Adams finds distressing), the possibility of winning wars by pressing buttons at CIA headquarters seems like an armchair general's dream come true.

It is at this point that the Adams' agenda finally surfaces. He deplores that "a risk-averse approach to warfare in all its forms has seeped into the corridors of power." We must understand, he argues: If you want to win wars and stop thugs from running amok, you've got to pay the price -- people will have to die.

Cyberspace is partly to blame for this contemporary cowardice, argues Adams.

"Patriotism," he concludes, "which allowed politicians to send their men to fight and die for their country, is becoming an old-fashioned concept with little resonance among a generation that has loyalty to cyberspace but little loyalty to a world where sacrifice, honor and duty are the price that might have to be paid for membership in a society with standards, morals and principles."

No wonder "The Next World War" gets fulsome back-cover blurbs from right-wing flag bearers like thriller author Tom Clancy and former prisoner-of-war Sen. John McCain. "The Next World War" isn't actually about the future at all. It's a fulmination against the present -- against vacillating politicians like President Clinton who are slaves to pollsters and CNN, and who refuse to make the same hard choices as the "brilliant" George Bush or the visionary Ronald Reagan.

McCain calls his book "a clarion call to prepare for threats that are already materializing." But it's more like a position paper for boosting government spending on high-tech gadgets that the military-industrial complex is infatuated with.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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