Review of Dark Territory (Cyber war)

Book Review – Dark Territory
Hamid Hussain

Fred Kaplan’s new book Dark Territory is a history of cyber war.  It traces the origins of efforts to protect computers and networks from hostile intrusions and then development of offensive capabilities to eves drop and even sabotage adversary’s computers and networks.  Fred introduces us to many diverse characters from computer geeks to senior government officials involved in a struggle that has rarely seen sunshine as most of the work is highly classified.  It was a 1983 movie War Games that prompted President Ronald Reagan to ask Pentagon if someone could break into Department of Defense (DOD) computers and tamper with missile launch. Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey came back a week with the answer that the problem was much worse than they thought.  This prompted the first attempts of cyber security.

Fred provides the details of a 1997 exercise by National Security Agency’s (NSA) ‘red team’ to check the vulnerability of DOD computer networks.  NSA’s ‘hackers’ were able to penetrate DODs network in four days.  When they encountered difficulty in hacking into intelligence directorate of Joint Chiefs J-2, one of the team members simply called a J-2 officer. He told the officer that he was from the Pentagon’s IT department fixing a problem and need to reset the passwords.  J-2 officer gave him all the passwords over the phone without even confirming the identity of the caller. This is a good example of how millions of dollars worth of security systems in place can be bypassed by such simple almost idiotic concepts. Team had also cracked the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) password but in final report this was not mentioned with a note that ‘no need to piss-off a four star’.

One chapter of the book provides details of ‘Operation Olympic Games ‘to sabotage Iranian nuclear program.  This program was exposed because the virus escaped from Natanz nuclear plant and computer security companies in United States and Russia detected this virus.  These companies then figured out that this virus named Stuxnet was specifically designed for sabotage.  Experts had ensured President Obama that there was no chance that virus could escape the ‘box’ and affect other computers, however they forgot German strategist Helmut von Moltke’s words that “no operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” Later, it was revealed that this operation was a joint venture of NSA, CIA and Israel’s cyber warfare Unit 8200. In a follow up attack ‘Operation Flame’, hard drives of Iranian oil ministry were wiped out.

United States set the precedent of nuclear warfare when it dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In the same manner, it has set the precedent of offensive cyber war by targeting Iran’s nuclear program.  U.S. government and private sector computers are facing a barrage of attacks from Russian and Chinese hackers and government entities.  A Korean cyber attack shut down several U.S. government websites as well as New York Stock Exchange.  In 2012, Iran counter-attacked with Shamoon virus damaging hard drives of Saudi Aramco.  NSA’s own internal memo concluded that Iranians had shown the capability to learn from American and Israeli capabilities in the field of cyber warfare. This is a new frontier of warfare and no one knows the rules of this combat.

Dark Territory is a good book about the history of cyber security and vulnerabilities. It gives a glimpse about how increasing complexity also increases the vulnerabilities.  United States set another precedent by launching cyber attack specifically for ‘offensive’ purposes without fully calculating the consequences.  United States is the most vulnerable country as it is more dependent on computers and networks than any other country.  Once you have a new weapon, it is very hard to control the urge to use it.  However, policy makers need to pause and reflect on Sun Tzu’s words that ‘the side that knows when to fight and when not to will take the victory”. The real debate should be how to translate cyber capabilities into a coherent policy and at the same time updating laws of the land to ensure a balance between privacy and security.  This is the most challenging task as most of the programs are classified and so far most of the information has come from leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Fred Kaplan points to important turning points in the history of cyber warfare and raises some very important questions concerning law and policy.

Fred Kaplan.  Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Hamid Hussain
May 30, 2016

Defence Journal, June 2016

Akhtat Mansour, Islamic Wife-beating and Muslims for Trump 5-29-2016

Continuing the random thoughts theme.

This week began with a drone attack that dispatched Mullah Mansoor to meet his 72 virgins. More details have since been revealed about the Taliban chief’s last journey and the Pakistani government has finally confirmed that he is dead, though the whereabouts of his remains are still a bit mysterious (it was reported that he has been buried in Spin Boldak, but the latest Pakistani government statement claims his body is still in Pakistan). The details of his life before the fatal strike are still confusing and contradictory.

Everyone has theories about the significance of this strike and whether it will weaken or strengthen the US-backed Afghan regime or the Pakistan-backed Taliban. Considering that Pakistan is a “major non-NATO ally” and a partner in the ANTI-Taliban coalition (and receives regular payments for these services, freely offered and repeatedly affirmed by Pakistani civilian and military leaders) AND is also the main backer of the Taliban and feels that the US-backed regime and US policy in general are actually a threat to Pakistan (a position also repeatedly affirmed by Pakistani civilian and military leaders, especially when they no longer hold official positions; incidentally this affirmation is shared  by many “pro-Western” Pakistanis), there is no end to the convolutions and contradictions in this situation. So it is impossible for an amateur/casual observer to claim that he knows what is going on and what “really happened”. All we can say is “what a tangled web we weave..” and leave it at that.
But while we may be in no position to say how and why this particular strike took place and who is playing against whom, we can still make a general observation that in war there are only two ways to make peace: either one side wins and the other side accepts defeat (or gets wiped out), OR both sides recognize they are not likely to win outright and there is a compromise position both sides can accept (no matter how unhappily). Now consider the position of the Taliban; if they feel they have no chance of coming back into power and the pain of carrying on is too much, then they may accept a US backed regime and make peace on those terms. But if they feel they can outlast the US and their losses are bearable, then what is the incentive to make peace? Considering that for 15 years the US has not made strategic victory a priority, and is still insisting that the Mullah Mansour strike was a one-off, why would the new leaders compromise? More of the same seems likely..

Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani addresses a press conference in Islamabad on May 26, 2016. 

The other big news of the week on social media was the announcement by the council of Islamic ideology that they are working on an “Islamic” version of the women’s protection bill that would protect the position of women by prohibiting contact with non-mehram males (e.g. by banning female nurses contact with male patients), banning any art education that includes drawing living beings or sculpting them and by permitting husbands to “discipline” their wives by “lightly beating them” if needed. (incidentally, this problem has arisen because the Pakistani constitution has a series of “Islamic provisions” that require ALL laws to be “in accordance with the quran and sunnah”. Many of the framers no doubt thought this could be taken to mean whatever they wanted, but it does give an opening to mullahs and Islamic scholars over and above that afforded to them in countries like Egypt and Turkey).

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CII’s anti-women proposals   

Needless to say, this news led to a gleeful postings on Islamophobic sites, much outrage among  Muslim women and intense discussion about the locus standi of the CII, the “Islamic” nature of this Islamic proposal and the best way to stop this move. As any fan of Islamic jurisprudence will agree, the proposals are fully in line with classical Shariah law (of ALL major schools of Islamic law), but as these fans are also aware, this law was never fully implemented in the good old days and is even less likely to be enforced today. Very few modern leaders in Muslim nations have seriously considered (much less asked for) the institution of slavery or the practice of using female slaves as concubines, to be freely  bought and sold by Muslim males in a Muslim society. Yet these are also part and parcel of classical shariah. In short, there IS indeed some truth to the claim that contemporary Muslims do NOT necessarily practice (or support) all aspects of medieval Islamicate jurisprudence. But while most contemporary Muslims do not practice or vocally support particular Shariah rulings that are not in line with contemporary mores, they frequently support the abstract notion of “enforcing shariah” and they lack any clear alternative to that law. There have been institutional efforts and there are individual scholars who argue in favor of modern re-interpretation of classical shariah, but these efforts have NOT achieved critical mass. And all efforts at reform face the twin threats of apostasy and blasphemy memes, which have enough support in the Islamic world to make such reform a hazardous undertaking. But all is not lost. As the reaction to the “wife-beating” proposal indicates, this may well be the next shariah rule that will go the way of slavery and concubinage. Inshallah. 🙂

Finally, I happened to be at a Pakistani-American gathering yesterday and was somewhat surprised to run into a couple of vehement Trump supporters. One of them was a very observant Muslim who prays five times a day and is a pillar of the local Islamic center, but who was supporting Trump because “Trump will keep out terrorists who give a bad name to Muslims and who threaten our future and the future of our children in this great country”. And he is not alone. 
Then I woke up to see this tweet from Indian film director Ram Gopal Verma (who happens to have 1.83 MILLION twitter followers):

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“3rd world people” like Varma are not necessarily fans of third world people. 

I still hope Hillary wins. I don’t think Trump is fit to be president (on ANY party’s platform). But I also think he COULD win. A lot of people are voting against the bipartisan consensus of the recent past. ..They may be voting for a worst alternative (at least, I think they will be, if they vote for Trump), but there is a lot of resentment and sense of betrayal out there. Interesting times.

Random Thoughts 5-19-2016; Asian-Americans, Humanities, Trump..

I have been busier than usual, been reading more than before (trying to avoid Jaun Elya’s barb: “he was writing when he should have been reading”) and spending more time on Twitter than ever before, so blog posts have been few and far between. And with “products” due at work, things are not likely to change soon. So I thought I would try something different. Once a week or so, I will do something like an open thread. Just a few short comments on a few stories, most of them copied and pasted from comments I wrote on different internet sites. So here goes..

We Are Not Your Asian American (Political) Sidekick Razib Khan has a post up about “..(using Asian Americans) as a prop, often in a mendacious manner.” . Read the whole thing. When I did, I had a thought about why some Asian-Americans (mostly in left-liberal academia and it’s media periphery) are so eager to embrace a certain “we, the oppressed POCs of America” theme:

I would add that while Asian Americans in general suffer from discreet (or not so discreet) anti-Asian quotas that are put in place to limit their numbers in elite institutions, the kind of Asian-American intellectuals who write books about “POC solidarity” and run blogs called “racialicous” are in a different category; they are net (niche) beneficiaries of the “Asians as picked-upon-POC” framework they promote about Asians in America and this provides an obvious motivation for them to stick to it… For example, it gives them victim status in a social and academic setting where victim status is a very desirable good.

I understand that Asian Americans are not getting jobs on diversity quotas in most places, but the victim status still has clear psychological and social benefits and I strongly suspect that it also protects mediocre work (or whatever passes for work in the social sciences) from criticism OVER AND ABOVE the protection enjoyed by their White colleagues. Imagine 5 equally mediocre bullshitters who happen to be critical studies faculty at a liberal institution. They are not all equally protected. The White faculty member may benefit from connections and “White privilege”, the Jewish faculty from Jewish networking, but what defends the Asian guy? He or she has to rely on the POC card. Maybe they are still at a disadvantage versus equally mediocre Jews or Whites, but it is better than nothing. My point is that this motivation cannot be excluded when we think of WHY some Asian-American intellectual is pushing X or Y crap. In fact, I can think of examples of Indian-American writers and intellectuals who are clearly not being held to very high standards by the New York Times types and I suspect that successful manipulation of White guilt/POC privilege plays a part..

Of course, then there are those (few) intellectuals who are genuinely committed to a specific vision of world revolution and their views about the karma of brown folk follow naturally from that framework. Just to be clear, I am not thinking about them when I think of over-priviliged Asian-American kids blogging on Racialicious. Though both parties are happy to use each other, they are not the same. But truly committed revolutionary Marxists are few and far between. They can be criticized on other grounds, but psychological satisfaction and postmarxist postmodern BS are not their basic framework.


A commentator on another Razib Khan post (a post that touches on the touchy question: “Why Not Close Humanities Departments?”) wondered if shutting down the humanities would not take away a safety valve, one where ” the left was effectively “tamed” in the U.S. They became part of the establishment through being allowed a little safe space away from capitalism. .”

I disagreed as follows:

Your argument rests on the assumption that college humanities departments have no real-world consequences at all, so it is safe to put leftists there and let them spout endless reams of pure bullshit….. But while they may not have immediate consequences, they may still have longer term consequences, no?… after all, they do set the intellectual agenda to some extent. may be enough to matter. (This is my favorite theory for why a smart person like Edward Said spewed so much nonsense; he knew it was nonsense, but he was fighting a war and all is fair in love and war. He was doing nothing less than bringing down Western civilization, opera and all. Samson option)

On the other hand, there is always the possibility that social change happens a few years (at least) ahead of any effort to conceptualize or understand it. So if we are doomed, we are doomed. this theory, it may still be possible for scattered individuals to grasp what is going on in some limited area and take advantage of foreknowledge, but even they only know a few things, not the overall picture.
It is what it is, nobody is in control and nobody can consciously alter the big picture… Fate rules everyone.

It is a cheery thought somehow 🙂

The New York Times has a piece about the rise of the Right (Austria’s Election Is a Warning to the West) which is remarkable for its total lack of self-awareness. The writer seems completely oblivious to the possibility that the endangered liberal consensus may have itself have some issues that have led it to this pass; maybe parts of the liberal framework are not very realistic? (as in “aligned with the world as it actually is”) Could it be that one reason a buffoon like Trump has a serious shot at becoming president is because the mainstream liberal worldview contains some elements that seem far too unreal/laughable/wrong to far too many people? 

Anyway, the sky may not be falling. Or at least, not completely so. I remain in the “weirdly optimistic’ camp. There will be crises, but there will also be recoveries and new roads to new places..not necessarily recovery of specific parties or specific forms of liberalism… but the arc of history bends towards individualism and autism and more technology, with decreasing everyday violence in the more developed countries… Some places may crash and burn though…

Last but not the least, the BJP appears to be replacing a moribund Congress as India’s “national” party . I posted this article from respected (liberal, not pro-BJP) columnist Siddharth Vardrajan on Twitter with the comment ” I am not too optimistic abt a soft-landing for Hindutva (not all their fault btw, but bottom line= hard”. I was asked to explain what I meant, so I will try: I mean that the BJP includes many people who are nationalist and pro-capitalist but whose “soft Hindutva” is willing to imagine an India that is a country of laws, where non-Hindus (even Muslims) have rights and protections just like everyone else (though not more than anyone else). This is a vision that could be workable. And I would not mind at all if it was made to work, even imperfectly. But there are many things working against it. An obvious one is the “hard Hindutva” band, who really cannot conceive of an India with 200 million Muslims and X million Christians (the “non-dharmic faiths”) living as equal citizens (of course this group regard this fact as the fault of Muslims and Christians, who are seen as followers of alien ideologies that aim to undermine and eventually replace the ancient (Hindu) civilization of India, etc etc). This group is not easy to keep in check, especially if BJP comes to enjoy greater power, unfettered by alliances with “secular” forces. This particular threat to a peaceful and harmonious Indian future is frequently mentioned and is never too far from the mind of liberal commentators and this alone may prevent a “soft landing”, but there is more; there is the fact that Muslims do in fact include elements who are also unwilling to aim for a truly secular India. There are going to be jihadis and suicide bombers in India’s future, and as we have seen elsewhere, the very presence of groups this bigoted and this willing to kill can shift the entire culture towards sectarian warfare and “back to basics” civil war. There is also a very concerted Christian missionary effort that may not match the transnational loyalties of the ummah, but that does have money, modernity and Western support behind it and trouble (justified or not) is easy to imagine. Then there is capitalist disruption and India’s not so ready for prime-time infrastructure, state and intelligentsia.. and last but not the least, there is India’s Westernized postMarxist Left. Enuff said.

A soft landing will need visionary leadership and lots of luck. Need i say more?

With that cheery thought, i look forward to next week 🙂

PS: Here is Aasem Bakhshi on Lesley Hazelton’s book about the Shia-Sunni split (and about popular history writing in general). 

And don’t miss Aqil Shah’s excellent piece, which blows away the “drone blowback” theory so beloved of the regressive Left.


And memories of Josh Malihabadi for fans of Urdu poetry 

and to show that I am not completely lacking in self-awareness about what I am doing here, a quote from Nate Silver’s mea culpa about his Trump predictions:

“Without a model as a fortification, we found ourselves rambling around the countryside like all the other pundit-barbarians, randomly setting fire to things…”

Words to live by

Brown Pundits