Finding common cause

The global terrorist threat, brought to U.S. soil on 9/11, has not gone away. And it now includes the ever looming war in cyberspace.

It’s hard to fathom now, but an amazing thing happened in our country during the period that immediately followed the terrible 2001 terrorist attacks. An entire nation came together. In the first days, weeks and months that followed those earth-shattering moments, Americans of different backgrounds, interests, ideologies and political persuasions actually found common cause.

The global terrorist threat, brought home to us all in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, has not gone away in the meantime. If anything, the looming danger to this nation’s safety and security has intensified beyond the scope of Osama bin Laden’s mad worldview. The threat now is even more sinister, perhaps. And it emanates not just from fundamentalist religions or the clash of cultures. It revolves around technology.

That is one of the unnerving aspects of this week’s cover story on cyber warfare, as reported by staff writer Amber Corrin. Al Qaeda remains elusive and hard to pin down, to be sure. But bin Laden’s suicidal flunkies do show their faces from time to time, and with concerted detective and spy work, they can presumably be hunted down.

The biggest challenge for the U.S. government in the post-Sept. 11 world was getting various federal, state and local agencies and officials to work in concert. And during the past eight years, those government actors have made considerable strides in that effort, thanks in no small part to some smart technological innovations, many of which have been chronicled in these pages and elsewhere.

But those were technological solutions to what are essentially bureaucratic hurdles to finding and catching the enemy. The cyber threat poses a completely different kind of problem, Amber reports. We don’t know who the enemy is because he/she/they/it never reveal themselves as the perpetrators of a cyber terrorist act. 

We still don’t know, for instance, whether the principals behind the denial-of-service attacks that shut down the nation of Georgia’s computer defense shield last year were a group of rogue individuals, just one person or the government of Russia. This is a conundrum of both defense and offense. How do you protect yourself? Against whom do you retaliate?

Once again, however, the challenges of the next new theater of war are forcing the people charged with fighting that war to think outside their comfort zones. That is one of the encouraging aspects of Amber’s reporting about U.S. efforts to combat cyber enemies.

The new coalition of the willing in the world of technological warfare is not just between government agencies and among state, local and foreign governments. There is growing recognition within our military establishment that essential partners in this cause reside in the private sector, where technology drives innovation and, ultimately, success.

That will require a big change in the command-and-control culture of our mighty Defense Department, most everyone acknowledges. But the fact is the suits and the uniforms will need to go arm in arm into this cyber war if any of us are going to be able to sleep safe again at night.