Seymour Hersh on the Rhetoric and Reality of 'Cyber War'

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The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh has one of his classic deep investigations in this week's issue. His topic this time is "cyber war," or at least the packet of behaviors by foreign governments that are sometimes classed under that heading.

While the article feels a tiny bit diffuse to me, you can't help but come away from it feeling like the idea we'd battle another country in cyberspace is mostly a useful fiction for the military establishment. If we're at war, they get to control the nation's cyber security apparatus, and all its attendant turf and riches. And bonus: if we are in a cyber war, the less able and likely we are to fight for our civil liberties and privacy online.

The story is well worth your time. I excerpt the incredibly compelling anecdote that begins the piece about a National Security Agency spy plane captured and (apparently) reverse engineered by the Chinese. You'll have to read to the end to find out the surprising coda to the story.

On April 1, 2001, an American EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane on an eavesdropping mission collided with a Chinese interceptor jet over the South China Sea, triggering the first international crisis of George W. Bush's Administration. The Chinese jet crashed, and its pilot was killed, but the pilot of the American aircraft, Navy Lieutenant Shane Osborn, managed to make an emergency landing at a Chinese F-8 fighter base on Hainan Island, fifteen miles from the mainland. Osborn later published a memoir, in which he described the "incessant jackhammer vibration" as the plane fell eight thousand feet in thirty seconds, before he regained control.

The plane carried twenty-four officers and enlisted men and women attached to the Naval Security Group Command, a field component of the National Security Agency. They were repatriated after eleven days; the plane stayed behind. The Pentagon told the press that the crew had followed its protocol, which called for the use of a fire axe, and even hot coffee, to disable the plane's equipment and software. These included an operating system created and controlled by the N.S.A., and the drivers needed to monitor encrypted Chinese radar, voice, and electronic communications. It was more than two years before the Navy acknowledged that things had not gone so well. "Compromise by the People's Republic of China of undestroyed classified material . . . is highly probable and cannot be ruled out," a Navy report issued in September, 2003, said.

The loss was even more devastating than the 2003 report suggested, and its dimensions have still not been fully revealed. Retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, who flew patrols off the coast of Russia and served as a defense attaché in Beijing, told me that the radio reports from the aircraft indicated that essential electronic gear had been dealt with. He said that the crew of the EP-3E managed to erase the hard drive--"zeroed it out"--but did not destroy the hardware, which left data retrievable: "No one took a hammer." Worse, the electronics had recently been upgraded. "Some might think it would not turn out as badly as it did, but I sat in some meetings about the intelligence cost," McVadon said. "It was grim."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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