Destroying smallpox stocks

Smallpox has killed countless people over the last 12,000 years. It is difficult now to understand the terror that smallpox evoked in a pre-vaccination era. When smallpox was introduced into new populations the death rates sometimes could even exceed 90%, as was the case with the Mandans in the 1837 Great Plains Epidemic. The virus was finally wiped out in the wild through a massive vaccination program in the 1970s. The last infection took place in 1977. Now what should be done with the remaining stocks of the virus in Russia and the United States? I recommend a video by Errol Morris on the New York Times website “The Demon in the Freezer,” which examines this issue in detail. The interview with the Russian bioweapons scientist is particularly chilling. What I liked about the video was that it showcased voices from both sides of the debate.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The frightening truth of Area 51

Dwight John Zimmerman has authored Area 51 in collaboration with artist Greg Scott, to tell the location of this key aeronautical research location in Groom Lake, Nevada. Of course, Area 51 is a favorite of UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists, and both these topics are covered (p. 3-8, 15, 51). These ideas, however, are not the core of this work of graphic non-fiction. Instead, this is a sweeping historical study, which describes the successes and failures that the U.S. intelligence and military services experienced while developing new aviation technologies at Area 51.

What is impressive is the quantity of material that Zimmerman is able to cover in 91 pages. Greg Scott’s realistic style works well with this content. Many of the black and white sketches remind one of period photographs. Scott is equally adept at capturing the look of advanced aircraft or a battle field. The text and images meld well together.

What most interested me about the work, however, was its extensive discussion of drones, particularly their early history (p. 42-50). Today global powers are discussing creating drone submarines, and even drone submarine hunters. In Northwest Pakistan and Yemen the United States has been carrying out an undeclared war. With a recent drone strike in Libya, the scale of the conflict seems to be expanding. This technology has developed with amazing speed.

As Zimmerman discusses, the United States invested vast amounts of time, funds and expertise into drone development in the early 1960s. For example, in 1964 the United States used drones to carry out “160 reconnaissance missions over China” (p. 44). Remarkably, in 1962 the United States began work on a Mach 3 drone, which proved unsuccessful (45). The scale of American investments is fascinating, but in the end Zimmerman argues that the U.S. failed, because the key technology to enable drones to work had not yet been developed.

By the 1980s, the situation had changed. Zimmerman describes (p. 65-73) how the rapid increase in microprocessor speeds permitted the U.S. air force to create a new generation of drones. The first drone was used in a combat theater in 1999 during the conflict over Kosovo. Scott’s images (p. 73) capture the rapid evolution in drones’ capabilities, from being tasked with aerial reconnaissance, to being used to accurately deliver laser guided bombs upon particular individuals. As Zimmerman makes clear, the U.S. is currently developing a host of new drones, which even include helicopters (p. 88).

In an earlier blog post I reviewed the book Ghost Fleet, which described a hypothetical future conflict between the United States and China, in which drones played a central and horrifying role. The groundwork for these robotic conflicts is being laid now. While cyberwarfare -such as the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program- has attracted the attention of security theorists, I believe that drones merit equal attention or more. Few people are regularly being killed in cyber warfare, but this is not the case with drones. While the United States took an early and impressive lead, other countries are now rapidly developing these technologies, particularly in Asia. The area of the world that is now seeing the most sustained and significant growth in military spending is Asia, and these expenditures are largely being driven by the issue of the South China sea. If one were to see the emergence of a major conflict in which drones played a central role, this would certainly be the most likely location. If so, doubtless some of the drones involved will have been designed in Area 51.

Scott and Zimmerman’s book is well-written, beautifully illustrated, and compelling. Highly recommended for anyone interested in military technology and Area 51. The truth is out there.

Do you want to read about a true historical mystery? Please read my post about the ghost ship the Baltimore, and the mystery woman who was found aboard after the entire crew disappeared.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Endless war in the Eastern Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the CIA World FactbookThe Council of Foreign Relations website has useful background reports on a number of major issues, such as cyber security, but by far the best is their report on the Eastern Congo. This conflict has taken more lives than any other conflict such World War Two, and at times threatened to destabilize much of Africa. Nonetheless, it seldom receives media coverage, especially compared with events in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though 5 million people have died of violence and starvation during the years of crisis in the region. The CFR’s new storyboard combines multiple media formats such as text, video, a slideshow, maps and a timeline. The video itself is about ten minutes in length, yet provides most of the key information needed to understand they key actors and issues in the crisis. Overall, the video is concise, well-organized and thoughtful. The slideshow also does an excellent job of integrating text, images and audio. I mainly teach online, and I find that students particularly like formats that ask them to interact with the media, such as the slideshow. Together, the different media address all the key issues: child soldiers, rape as a weapon of war, Belgium’s horrific colonial involvement in the region, the history of U.S. involvement during the Cold War, the long shadow cast by the Rwandan genocide, and the participation of a U.N. force. I will be teaching an “Introduction to International Studies” this spring quarter in an online format, and I’ll likely be using this page in the week on security. For any instructor who wants to include African content for this section of an introductory course in International Studies, this website provides a great resource. Recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The Soviet Navy versus Russia’s

Despite the collapse of oil prices, Russia has remerged onto the global stage as a major player, in the aftermath of the conquest of the Crimea. Russia’s involvement in Syria, for example, reversed the course of that conflict, which was sliding towards the government’s defeat. Before the recent ceasefire was declared the government was on the verge of encircling Aleppo, which would have been impossible with Russia’s intervention. During the conflict, Russia launched missiles from naval ships in the Black Sea, which reminded observers of its new military capabilities.

While Russia has formidable military forces, however, it’s also worth remembering that it is not the great power that it was during the Cold War. In many respects, Russia barely has a blue water fleet, which is capable of operating globally. This graphic from Contemporary Issues and Geography makes clear the astounding decrease in the size and capabilities of Russia’s naval forces. While Russia is using its modest naval forces effectively, they still cannot compare either with the naval forces of the Soviet Union, or the U.S. navy today.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The U.S. Drone Fleet

Warfare is changing rapidly, with the development not only of drones in the air, but also in other services. For example, the US. navy is increasingly interested in sub-hunting drones as a possible means to hunt other nations’ ballistic missile submarines. What is remarkable, however, is how fast the change has taken place within the U.S. air force. I recently came across this graphic at Contemporary Issues and Geography, which shows the size of the current U.S. drone fleet. Click on the image once to increase it to full size. As this graphic shows, the United States now produces and operates drones at a staggering scale.
Shawn Smallman, 2016.

The Magic of Number Stations

Waterfall display for "The Buzzer", radio station UVB-76 on 4625 KHz. The lower sideband is clearly suppressed. Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons on 28 June 2010 by Janm67
“Waterfall display for “The Buzzer”, radio station UVB-76 on 4625 KHz. The lower sideband is clearly suppressed.” Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons on 28 June 2010 by Janm67 with a GNU Free Documentation License.

One of the world’s enduring mysteries is the nature of number stations, which are shortwave radio stations that broadcast random lists of numbers, morse code, or strange bursts of sound, such as the odd beeps on Russian station UVB-76. Nobody knows what the purpose of the number stations is for certain, but we do know that they have been broadcasting for decades, that the transmitters have an immense amount of power, and that stations broadcast in languages that range from Bulgarian to Chinese. These facts probably mean that only nation states would have the resources to operate these communication systems. The most likely explanation is that these sites are tools for global espionage networks. It may be difficult to believe, but even in this internet age the most secure way to transmit one way messages may be through shortwave radio, which can’t be traced to the listener. The messages are almost certainly transmitted using one time pads, a probably unbreakable form of encryption. …

Security, fear and Stuxnet

Roman Poroshyn’s brief book (156 pages) provides an excellent overview of Stuxnet within the larger context of cyber-warfare and espionage in the Middle East. Unlike another book on the same topic, Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero, it is not based on extensive interviews, nor does it focus in as great a depth upon the process through which the virus was investigated by global cyber security firms. Instead, with Stuxnet: the true story of Hunt and Evolution, Poroshyn tries to place Stuxnet into a broader context of espionage and cyber-warfare directed against not only Iran, but also other institutions in the Middle East, such as the Lebanese banking system. The book is an engaging read (despite the awkward wording of its subtitle), and Poroshyn shares a number of intriguing insights, of which the most interesting was that Stuxnet’s creators ultimately may have allowed it to be revealed to the world as an act of psychological warfare (33-35, 154-155). One of Poroshyn’s other arguments is that Stuxnet is only one chapter in a much longer struggle, which is convincing given his detailed analysis of successive software tools (Flame, Gauss, Narilam, and perhaps Stars) that Israel and the United States likely used against Iran and other regional actors.

One of the book’s strengths is its ability to convey the intelligence of the software design behind this particular cyberweapon. For example, Stuxnet entered into the Iranian nuclear enrichment network through USB sticks, because the network was air-gapped (lacked an internet connection) to the outside world. The level of deceit entailed is chilling: “After the third infection the original Stuxnet worm commits suicide. It deletes itself from the USB stick without leaving a trace” (18). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that it used the very tools for securing machines to infect them: “The perfect match for all of Stuxnet’s requirements is a computer scan process, generated by antivirus software. Stuxnet injects its clone into a variety of processes generated by anti-virus programs from BitDefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec, and many others” (19). The program was so effective that it briefly shut down the entire Iranian enrichment program (22). Of course, the Iranians ultimately were able to return to significant production. What is impressive, however, was that it achieved this goals which would have been difficult to achieve even with a conventional airstrike against such a hardened site as the Iranian enrichment facility. It also had dangerous implications: “Russia, which is involved in the reconstruction of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Busher, immediately accused Stuxnet of problems associated with the reactor’s reconstruction, and blamed Stuxnet for all delays” (37). There seems to be little evidence for this allegation, but once the attack is made, other actors may also view themselves as being threatened (or that the attack represents a convenient excuse).

There is reason to believe, as Poroshyn suggests, that there are other versions of this particular weapon in existence, only biding their time to be unleashed (53). This book is currently in its third edition. It will be interesting to learn what has happened when the fourth edition is released.

If you are interested in cyber-warfare you might want to read my review of the novel Ghost Fleet.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Seymour Hersh and Syria

Few investigative journalists have as impressive a history covering international issues as Seymour Hersh. His current article, Military to Military, in the London Review of Books harshly criticizes current U.S. policy in Syria for being too critical of Russia, too supportive of Turkey, and most of all, unsuccessful. The piece is well worth reading.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Book Review of Lords of Secrecy

Scott Horton’s book Lords of Secrecy is a passionate, angry, well-written and disturbing look at how U.S. national security agencies have undermined congressional oversight, and consistently violated the law. At the core, this book argues that the growth of the national security bureaucracy has outgrown the ability of Congress to provide oversight, and fundamentally threatens democracy. In the aftermath of the appalling and evil attacks in Paris last week, there is currently a clear need for effective intelligence agencies. Horton’s work, however, raises questions about the autonomy of these organizations, and the risks that their work may entail by pervading secrecy throughout our political culture. …

Security and a strange cyberattack

The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to, and downloaded from Wikipedia Commons
The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to I downloaded the image from Wikipedia Commons

In Countdown to Zero Kim Zetter describes a 2010 cyberattack on the Iranian nuclear program. In a brilliant piece of computer engineering, the control units for centrifuges that enriched uranium were forced to slow and fail. The attack was so carefully planned that even after it began the Iranians were initially unable to diagnose the problem. The book itself is well written and carefully researched. Zetter did extensive interviews in the cybersecurity community, to understand how people identified and studied this particular worm. This work is detailed in extensive footnotes, which will lead a curious reader down interesting paths. Zetter carefully describes the technical issues involved in the attack, without letting this detail impede the storyline. Overall, this is a masterful work of narrative non-fiction, which engages the reader in a highly complex topic. …

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