This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
First the financial system collapses and it's impossible to access one's money. Then the power and water systems stop functioning. Within days, society has begun to break down. In the cities, mothers and fathers roam the streets, foraging for food. The country finds itself fractured and fragmented—hardly recognizable.
It may sound like a scene from a zombie apocalypse movie or the first episode of NBC's popular new show "Revolution," but it could be your life—a nationwide cyber-version of Ground Zero.
Think of it as 9/11/2015. It's Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's vision of the future—and if he's right (or maybe even if he isn't), you better wonder what the future holds for erstwhile American civil liberties, privacy, and constitutional protections.
Last week, Panetta addressed the Business Executives for National Security, an organization devoted to creating a robust public-private partnership in matters of national security. Standing inside the Intrepid, New York's retired aircraft-carrier-cum-military-museum, he offered a hair-raising warning about an imminent and devastating cyber strike at the sinews of American life and wellbeing.
Yes, he did use that old alarm bell of a "cyber Pearl Harbor," but for anyone interested in American civil liberties and rights, his truly chilling image was far more immediate. "A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups," he predicted, "could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11."
Panetta is not the first Obama official to warn that the nation could be facing a cyber catastrophe, but he is the highest-ranking to resort to 9/11 imagery in doing so. Going out on a limb that previous cyber doomsayers had avoided, he mentioned September 11th four times in his speech, referring to our current vulnerabilities in cyber space as "a pre-9/11 moment."
Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, warnings of cyber menaces from foreign enemies and others have flooded the news. Politicians have chimed in, as have the experts—from respected security professionals like President George Bush's chief counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke to security policymakers on the Hill like Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins. Even our no-drama president has weighed in remarkably dramatically on the severity of the threat. "Taking down vital banking systems could trigger a financial crisis," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The lack of clean water or functioning hospitals could spark a public health emergency. And as we've seen in past blackouts, the loss of electricity can bring businesses, cities, and entire regions to a standstill."
Panetta's invocation of 9/11 was, however, clearly meant to raise the stakes, to sound a wake up call to the business community, Congress, and the nation's citizens. The predictions are indeed frightening. According to the best experts, the consequences of a massive, successful cyber attack on crucial US systems could be devastating to life as we know it.
It's no longer just a matter of intellectual property theft, but of upending the life we lead. Imagine this: instead of terrorists launching planes at two symbolic buildings in the world's financial center, cyber criminals, terrorists, or foreign states could launch viruses into major financial networks via the Internet, or target the nation's power grids, robbing citizens of electricity (and thus heat in the middle of winter), or disrupt the systems that run public transportation, or contaminate our water supply.
Any or all of these potential attacks, according to leading cyber experts, are possible. Though they would be complex and difficult operations, demanding technical savvy, they are nonetheless within the realm of present possibility. Without protections, American citizens could be killed outright (say on a plane or a train) or left, as the president warned, without food, fuel, water and the mechanisms for transacting daily business.
For those of us who have lived inside the national security conversation for more than a decade now, such early warnings of dire consequences might sound tediously familiar, just another example of the (George W.) Bush who cried wolf. After all, in the wake of the actual 9/11 attacks, governmental overreach became commonplace, based on fear-filled scenarios of future doom. Continual hysteria over a domestic terror threat and (largely nonexistent) al-Qaeda "sleeper cells" bent on chaos led to the curtailing of the civil liberties of large segments of the American Muslim population and, more generally, far greater surveillance of Americans. That experience should indeed make us suspicious of doomsday predictions and distrustful of claims that extraordinary measures are necessary to protect "national security."
For the moment, though, let's pretend that we haven't been through a decade in which national security needs were used and sometimes overblown to trump constitutional protections. Instead, let's take the recent cyber claims at face value and assume that Richard Clarke, who prior to 9/11 warned continuously of an impending attack by al-Qaeda, is correct again.
And while we're not dismissing these apocalyptic warnings, let's give a little before-the-fact thought not just to the protection of the nation's resources, information systems, and infrastructure, but to what's likely to happen to rights, liberties, and the rule of law once we're swept away by cyber fears. If you imagined that good old fashioned rights and liberties were made obsolete by the Bush administration's Global War on Terror, any thought experiment you perform on what a response to cyber war might entail is far worse.
Remember former White House Council Alberto Gonzales telling us that, when it came to the interrogation of suspected terrorists, the protections of the US Constitution were "quaint and obsolete"? Remember the argument, articulated by many, that torture, Guantanamo, and warrantless wiretapping were all necessary to prevent another 9/11, whatever they did to our liberties and laws?
Now, fast forward to the new cyber era, which, we are already being told, is at least akin to the threat of 9/11 (and possibly far worse). And keep in mind that, if the fears rise high enough, many of the sorts of moves against rights and constitutional restraints that came into play only after 9/11 might not need an actual cyber disaster. Just the fear of one might do the trick.
Not surprisingly, the language of cyber defense, as articulated by Panetta and others, borrows from the recent lexicon of counterterrorism. In Panetta's words, "Just as [the Pentagon] developed the world's finest counterterrorism force over the past decade, we need to build and maintain the finest cyber operators."
The Cyber Threat to American Rights and Liberties
Cyber is "a new terrain for warfare," Panetta tells us, a "battlefield of the future." So perhaps it's time to ask two questions: In a world of cyber fear, what has the war on terror taught us about protecting ourselves from the excesses of government? What do policymakers, citizens, and civil libertarians need to think about when it comes to rights that would potentially be threatened in the wake of, or even in anticipation of, a cyber attack?