15 November 1998
Source: The New York Times, November 15, 1998


November 15, 1998

The Next Superweapon: Panic

Richard Danzig will be sworn in tomorrow as Secretary of the Navy.

WASHINGTON -- Once again we have found it necessary to call on our armed forces to limit the power and ambition of Saddam Hussein's military machine. Behind the scenes, a longer term struggle is also beginning. It is so novel, it warrants what all fresh military ideas need -- a new acronym. My proposed acronym is NEW -- nonexplosive warfare.

Until now, explosive weapons have captured the attention of the military when it plans battles and of civilian agencies when they worry about the protection of airports, airplanes and government buildings. But the nation is under-protected against weapons that don't explode. Of particular concern are those that use biological agents or attack computer systems.

These NEW weapons can often be countered or circumvented on the battlefield. But if used against civilians they can cause widespread disruption, panic and (in the case of biological weaponry) deaths that could be counted in the hundreds of thousands. While military forces have protective clothing, encrypted systems and other barriers to biological and information attack, civilians are almost nakedly exposed.

My purpose here is not to lay out specific plans for fighting such attacks or to talk about how much money such a defense would cost. My concern now is to identify the common attributes of the NEW weapons, so we understand the task at hand and can limit the damage these weapons can do.

Biological attacks disseminate bacteria, viruses or toxins to cause debilitating or fatal illness among those who breathe them, drink them or absorb them through the skin. Weapons of this kind are extraordinarily potent: a few pounds of anthrax dispersed in city air could kill a million people. An infectious agent like smallpox can induce a chain reaction with unending effects.

A single computer virus, like its biological equivalent, can also have widespread and proliferating effects. Whether built into software or introduced into a network later, a computer virus can disable or distort the communication networks and other systems upon which military and civilian life depend.

Consider the novel, numerous and dangerous attributes of these weapons. Their use will not be thwarted by armies or physical barricades. Neither their production nor their delivery requires large, expensive or visible systems. Potent biological weapons can be made in a room and held in a vat; a single leased airplane dispersing a biological agent can kill more people than died worldwide in any month of World War II. The forces of cyberspace can be marshaled on a desk and stored on a disk; a single computer can launch an information attack.

The knowledge, skills and materials needed to stage these actions are rather readily obtained, even by small groups or individuals. With the NEW weapons, the power to wage war is no longer monopolized by nation-states.

While explosive weapons and their delivery systems take decades to create, the NEW weapons multiply in variety and potency with the speed that characterizes the biotechnology and software industries from which they stem. Defenses typically cannot keep pace with offenses that are so easily varied and proliferated.

With nonexplosive weapons it may be difficult to tell if an incident is an act of war, the deed of a small terrorist group, a simple crime or a natural occurrence. This makes retaliation difficult.

Because deterrence depends on a credible ability and will to retaliate, our military will not be as effective in suppressing these attacks as it has been in discouraging other forms of warfare.

The military establishment does not easily come to grips with these new issues. The traditional business of warfare is explosive weaponry. Battlefields are the places where militaries engage each other.

For their part, our civilian authorities are not used to looking upon their domains as battlefields. They are not easily coordinated with one another and with the Defense Department. We are, in short, ill positioned for coping with the NEW weapons, especially if they are used against our civilians.

Attacks on civilians may be valued by our enemies not so much for their physical effects as for their psychological consequences. Though frequently labeled "weapons of mass destruction," the NEW weapons are really "weapons of mass disruption." They aren't likely to be aimed to cause death and destruction so much as disarray and despair. This provides an important clue to countering them.

Certainly we should do what we can to thwart and to insulate ourselves from these attacks. We should try to understand the psychology and structure of terrorist groups and step up our intelligence efforts to monitor and infiltrate groups that might use these weapons.

But biological attacks can be too easily mounted against too many exposed targets for us to insulate society completely. Similarly, our reliance on information systems will persistently outrun our ability to protect these networks completely. Through prevention and deterrence are worth investing in, we ought to assume that successful attacks will occur.

Our special efforts should be in managing the consequences of such warfare. We can reduce its effects by educating medical personnel, preparing response plans and stockpiling antibiotics. Legislation passed by Congress in 1996 finances several initiatives, led by the Defense and Justice Departments, to train local "first responders" to deal with biological and chemical attacks. President Clinton has shown a personal interest and has appointed a White House coordinator to intensify these efforts.

The consequences of information attacks can be reduced by giving our computer systems redundancy and making sure they are compartmentalized so that, when they are successfully attacked, their failure is "graceful" rather than catastrophic. Data can be camouflaged to confuse intruders, tagged and encoded so that manipulation can be detected.

Above all, we should stop thinking and organizing in terms of anachronistic distinctions between "here" and "abroad," between "military" and "civilian," among "crime," "war" and "natural occurrence." Nonexplosive weapons erode all such boundaries.

It is not likely that our response to a biological threat against, say, Denver would or should be limited to the Denver Police Department, or even the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nor, in protecting our military forces deployed abroad, could we ignore the threats against civilians in the countries that are host to them.

This does not require the militarization of America. The protections guaranteed in the Constitution against arrest and investigation can remain strong. This would not require large investments in civil defenses, like bomb shelters, that are of use only in an attack. Precisely because natural illnesses and computer viruses challenge our everyday welfare, preparations for NEW attacks buy us everyday benefits.

To maintain our security we must understand and address our vulnerability to nonexplosive weapons, at home and abroad. We have to learn not only how to prevent and deter this new warfare, but also how to manage its consequences. Only through a new union of our public health, police and military resources can we hope to deal with this dangerous threat.