Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Spies, Think Tanks, and Stuxnet Realities

by Micah Zenko
August 16, 2013

funeral convoy carrying bodies of four Islamist militants killed by an air strike A funeral convoy carrying the bodies of four Islamist militants killed by an air strike that their comrades said had been done by an Israeli drone but which state media said was the work of an Egyptian army helicopter, in the north of the Sinai peninsula on August 10, 2013. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Gregory D. Johnsen, “Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America?The Atlantic, August 14, 2013.

At the time of the meeting, the boy didn’t know that the United States had decided to kill a man named Adnan al-Qadhi, and had turned to its allies in Yemen for assistance. Now the Yemeni government needed the child’s help. The Republican Guard officers told him what they wanted him to do: plant tiny electronic chips on the man he had come to think of as a surrogate father. The boy knew and trusted the officers; they were his biological father’s friends. He told them he would try. He would be their spy.

“I climbed on the table where his coat was and put [a tracking chip] in his pocket,” Barq says…Neither the boy nor the man who had taken him in off the street could have known it yet, but by that point, Adnan al-Qadhi was effectively dead. All that was left was for a drone operator to push a button that would fire a missile.


Andy Greenberg and Ryan Mac, “How a ‘Deviant’ Philosopher Built Palantir, a CIA-Funded Data-Mining Juggernaut,” Forbes, August 14, 2013.

Palantir lives the realities of its customers: the NSA, the FBI and the CIA–an early investor through its In-Q-Tel venture fund–along with an alphabet soup of other U.S. counterterrorism and military agencies. In the last five years Palantir has become the go-to company for mining massive data sets for intelligence and law enforcement applications, with a slick software interface and coders who parachute into clients’ headquarters to customize its programs…

The bottom line: A CIA-funded firm run by an eccentric philosopher has become one of the most valuable private companies in tech, priced at between $5 billion and $8 billion in a round of funding the company is currently pursuing…


Eric Schmitt, “Embassies Open, but Yemen Stays on Terror Watch,” The New York Times, August 11, 2013.

Mr. Obama also said in May that targeted killing operations needed to be tightly limited.

The United States carries out strikes only against terrorists who pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, he said, and only when it is determined it would be impossible to detain them, rather than kill them. But the increased reliance on drones in Yemen suggests the limit of the resources the United States can employ in combating the new threats. A senior American official said over the weekend that the most recent terrorist threat “expanded the scope of people we could go after” in Yemen.

“Before, we couldn’t necessarily go after a driver for the organization; it’d have to be an operations director,” said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate intelligence issues. “Now that driver becomes fair game because he’s providing direct support to the plot.”

Senior American intelligence officials said last week that none of the about three dozen militants killed so far in the drone strikes were “household names,” meaning top-tier leaders of the affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the American official said the strikes had targeted “rising stars” in the Yemen network, people who were more likely to be moving around and vulnerable to attack.

(3PA: Lara Jakes and Adam Goldman also reported this week:  “Tracking and eliminating al-Qaida operatives in Yemen hasn’t been easy for the U.S….So frustrated was the CIA at one point, the spy agency considered killing the couriers passing messages in an attempt to disrupt the terrorist group’s plans, said a former senior U.S. official. The idea was dropped because the couriers were not involved in lethal operations.”)


Bryan Bender, “Many D.C. Think Tanks Now Players in Partisan Wars,” The Boston Globe, August 11, 2013.

It is a new and startlingly aggressive role for a leading Washington research institution, even one with the ideological underpinnings of Heritage, and emblematic of a larger trend. Not long ago, Washington’s think tanks constituted a rarefied world of policy-minded scholars supported by healthy endowments and quietly sought solutions to some of the nation’s biggest challenges. But now Congress and the executive branch are served a limitless feast of supposedly independent research from hundreds of nonprofit institutions that are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both…

Some say Washington’s once-heralded “ideas industry” steadily looks like a “think tank-industrial complex.”

(3PA: If you’re interested in how CFR is funded, please read our annual report.)


Peter Wallsten, “Lawmakers Say Obstacles Limited Oversight of NSA’s Telephone Surveillance Program,” Washington Post, August 10, 2013.

[House permanent select committee on intelligence chairman, Rep. Mike] Rogers said “very few members” take advantage of his invitations to receive quarterly staff briefings on counterterrorism operations, and others skipped briefings on the NSA bulk surveillance.

(3PA: If true, this is yet another depressing example of lax congressional oversight of U.S. targeted killings policy, since it is during these quarterly briefings where drone strikes are reviewed. As Rogers stated on the House floor in December 2012:  “We never really did covert-action reviews, except for sporadically. Now we do regularly, quarterly, and monthly covert-action reviews on this committee to make sure that we get it right, that they get it right.” Apparently, “very few members” are attending these.)


Jon R. Lindsay, “Stuxnet and the Limits of Cyber Warfare,” Security Studies, August 2013.

The emerging literature on the Cyber Revolution is uneven, but three widely held beliefs can be identified. Together these can be taken as a thesis that critical economic and military infrastructure is dangerously vulnerable because the internet gives military weaker actors asymmetric advantages, offense is becoming easier while defense is growing harder, and the difficulty of attributing the attacker’s identity undermines deterrence. However, the empirical facts of the only major, publicly known case of deliberate mechanical disruption via cyber means do not bear these assumptions out. Indeed, Stuxnet can be interpreted to support the opposite conclusions: cyber capabilities can marginally enhance the power of stronger actors over weaker actors, the complexity of weaponization makes cyber offense less easy and cyber defense more feasible than generally appreciated, and cyber options are most attractive when strategic deterrence is intact. There is reason to believe that the considerable social and technical uncertainties associated with cyber operations will significantly blunt their revolutionary potential. (369)

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Nice update, thanks,

    “He would be their spy.”

    Nice. I’d substitute “soldier” for “spy”; a combatant at that. Moral hazard leads to all kinds of crazy things it seems, like employing child soldiers.

    Someone needs to tell Greenburg and Mac that In-Q-Tel and its affiliates were knee-deep in the 9/11 insider trading fiasco with Marsh and McLennan, whose hard disks were conveniently obliterated on that fateful day.

    Poor Wallsten is like one of the many blind villagers in the living room touching some random part of a large animal, no one realizing it is actually an elephant: It is moral hazard in another Act of a larger play. He describes a symptom of moral hazard, shockingly illustrated alongside the drone issue. When politician’s _deliberately_ tune out what is going on and at the same time provide wide open language for bureaucrats to follow they generate moral hazard: Everyone can simply dodge accountability by saying that they “were sleeping while being briefed”, on the one hand, and the bureaucrats can say the language allowed it, on the other hand.

    Nice try, but the elected officials are the captains of the ship and they are the sole party to account. One can only feel sorry for them as they are in this position because of the corruption created by the decades of moral hazard that preceded them. It’s a cancer in our country and it’s growing. I hope history will be sufficiently enlightened to put this in the proper context. The enemy is not people, it’s a growing cancer called moral hazard.

    And it’s not my morals or “your” morals we need, it’s a social design that doesn’t foster and encourage people to constantly violate a society’s most basic, universal and commonly held morals, whatever they happen to be at the time. Hamilton’s and Madison’s design needs a bottom-up rebuild, imo.

    As for the “terrorism” threat in cyberspace, the more salient, long-term factor that no one seems to have noticed yet is the manner in which the free exchange of information is illuminating the vast, dichotomous chasm that aforesaid moral hazard has created over the last 100 years between the volume and depth of state secrecy and representative government. These things are not compatible and history will reckon with them eventually.

    - kk

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