Center for Strategic Communication

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

  • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
  • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
  • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
  • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.