Information Security News
mailing list archives
USA Today as DoD cyber-war propaganda mouthpiece
From: InfoSec News <isn () c4i org>
Date: Fri, 22 Jun 2001 00:25:24 -0500 (CDT)
[Y'know that I really shouldn't ok articles at 3:00am, while I knew
this one was all FUD, it was fun FUD and I was hoping one of the many
ISN readers would have taken this and ripped Andrea Stone a new
a**hole over it, (as the case has been in the past with some news
stories posted here, and yes, a few angry calls from the reporters)
but that's what 'The Register' is for. Expect to see this in
Attrition's errata section soon. - WK]
By Thomas C Greene in Washington
Posted: 21/06/2001 at 17:23 GMT
Anyone seeking advanced tuition in passing off government propaganda
as news ought to consult USA Today columnist Andrea Stone's recent
item entitled "Cyberspace: The next battlefield" for an exhaustive
master-class in exactly what not to do if one entertains hopes of
pulling the wool over their readers' eyes on behalf of the State.
So crude is Stone's work here that it unintentionally recommends
itself for pedagogical use thus:
Confluence of interest
First off, it's generally wise to avoid quoting exclusively those
people who maintain a vested interest in the very thesis one's 'news
item' promotes. This practice tends to tip off readers to one's
partiality, and should be discouraged.
In Stone's case, the thesis is that evil hacking masterminds in
Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, Israel and China are poised to
cripple all of Christendom at any second with the click of a mouse.
In support of this, Stone foolishly limits her sources to US Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who likes the idea of diverting public
funds to cyber defense (hey, it's not his money); Clinton
Administration Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, who made a career
of terrifying anyone who would listen of an "electronic Pearl Harbor"
which remains forever just around the corner; Congressional Research
Service defense analyst Steven Hildreth, who needs something to
analyze to keep his job; National Defense University instructor Dan
Kuehl, who likewise needs something to teach; US Army Major General
Dave Bryan, who needs someone to fight; and iDefense CEO James Adams,
whose vast pocketbook feeds rapaciously off the hacker hysteria of all
the above, and who needs your support so their budgets will continue
to accommodate his ambitions.
And no one else.
Now, the smart way to go about persuading readers of this improbable
nonsense would be to quote the relevant government apparatchiks and
opportunistic defense-contracting plutocrats in such a way as to
appear impartial while subtly privileging their message.
This can be accomplished by interviewing a number of opponents as
well, and then filtering all the quotes in a clever manner. For
example, one might arrange the source material in two columns on a
note pad: Column A with a series of quotes from the people one wants
readers to take seriously; Column B with a series of quotes from
nay-saying critics one wants dismissed out of hand.
One needs only re-arrange the Column A material in descending order of
rationality and the Column B material in ascending order of
rationality, and then run the top three or four items from both.
See how easy that is? All normal human beings naturally say both smart
things and stupid things whenever they open their mouths, so you
simply run the smart things said by the ones you want believed, and
the stupid things said by those you don't. Malicious journalism 101 so
far as we're concerned, but too advanced for Andrea Stone. Yet quite
Talk the walk
Whenever one resorts to technical or professional jargon in a
government press release masquerading as a news item like Stone's
cyberwar expos, it's advisable to have at least a general notion of
what it all means.
Furthermore, in a lowbrow publication like USA Today it's desirable to
include a four-color pie chart laying it all out graphically for the
blockheads in the audience, whose dependable lack of imagination
spares its publishers from bankruptcy; but even this level of
intellectual condescension necessitates a rudimentary command of the
Stone errs by underestimating the intelligence of the USA Today
enthusiast with technical expressions which even the slowest of wit
will detect are tossed about with self-consciousness and uncertainty.
A glance at her roundup of the 'tech stuff' tells us all we need to
Analysts say the US arsenal likely includes malevolent "Trojan horse"
viruses, benign-looking codes that can be inserted surreptitiously
into an adversary's computer network. They include:
* Logic bombs. Malicious codes that can be triggered on command.
* Worms. Programs that reproduce themselves and cause networks to
* Sniffers. "Eavesdropping" programs that can monitor and steal data
in a network.
A nice try, but it won't quite do. The explanations are about as
opaque to the uninitiated as the phrases themselves. Someone hasn't
done their homework, and we don't have to know what she's talking
about to sense that she doesn't know what she's talking about.
A quick Google session would have turned up all she'd care to know
about Trojans and logic bombs and worms and sniffers, and the
(sometimes subtle) distinctions among them; but apparently that's too
much to ask. She would have learned, and might have mentioned with
some appealing, self-effacing rhetoric, that "logic bomb" is the name
of a musical act and a Nintendo game, as well as a predictable nick
for many a Usenet troll.
The smart propagandist will draw a lesson from this: familiarity with
necessary jargon (whether real or affected) lends an air of authority
much desired when rubbish is to be propagated. And mistaking people
with low levels of educational achievement for ones with low levels of
basic intelligence and common sense is a tempting, but always fatal,
The art of understatement
It's a cardinal rule of public lying that propaganda works only when
the intended victim fails to perceive it as such. Most government
propaganda uses fear as a means of motivating the populace to
accommodate its agenda; thus the clever propagandist masquerading as a
journalist needs to master the fine art of threat understatement.
It simply won't do to issue grandiose warnings. People tend to
challenge them mentally, and if there's absolutely nothing behind them
-- a condition assumed for all government propaganda -- they end up in
the mental scrap-heap occupied by such things as sugar overdosing,
"Waterworld" and Nancy Sinatra.
It's always far better to understate the danger, and let the reader's
imagination unconsciously draw the government's scary conclusion,
which you have been paid to promote.
Here's Stone's highly educational example of how not to go about it:
"An adversary could use these same viruses to launch a digital
blitzkrieg against the United States. It might send a worm to shut
down the electric grid in Chicago and air-traffic-control operations
in Atlanta, a logic bomb to open the floodgates of the Hoover Dam and
a sniffer to gain access to the funds-transfer networks of the Federal
We were delighted by 'send a worm to shut down the electric grid in
Chicago' as it seems to have a very clever literary backbone to it,
regardless of its dorkiness.
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
-- William Blake
Great stuff there, but we rather think it's a coincidence.
Nevertheless, the clever propagandist should employ literary allusion,
as it transfers the authority of work the reader likely respects onto
your own drivel, thereby ennobling it to some degree.
In any case, the grotesque overstatements of opening the flood gates
of one of the world's largest dams and crippling one of its largest
cities backfire for poor Stone; and not even the Rose allusion
(assuming it was conscious) can save her.
To have done it right, she might have written something like "release
a worm in the night, to find unwary victims," which is a fair
statement that would allow the Blake to work subtly on the reader's
Now, for Heaven's sake, make sure your propaganda piece either
contains some actual news, or at least appears to. Remember, the
government is paying you good money for it, and they deserve a decent
product in return. So if you can't come up with anything new, at least
find an angle, a twist, an insight, that comes across as unique.
Again, a quick Google session would have led Stone to thousands of
similar articles stretching back years, to which she could have
applied a bit of imagination and ingenuity and happened upon a detail
which the others missed, and which she could have used as a hook.
Unfortunately, Stone does nothing but reiterate verbatim the same,
tired message that Richard Clarke, John Hamre, Michael Vatis, Louis
Freeh and Janet Reno have been hammering into the heads of an
enervated populace for ages.
Here again, the author underestimates her audience's intelligence,
reading comprehension and memory. To get it right, you've got to grant
your reader some credit -- let them use their cognitive faculties to
reach the conclusion you want, or they'll sense they're being led by
the nose and shut you off.
In other words, even the dullest USA Today junkie has to be
distinguished from someone with advanced Alzheimer's disease for a
propaganda piece like Stone's to be effective.
In all a disgraceful performance. We say the DoD has been cheated, and
should demand an immediate and full refund.
ISN is hosted by SecurityFocus.com
To unsubscribe email isn-unsubscribe () SecurityFocus com
- USA Today as DoD cyber-war propaganda mouthpiece InfoSec News (Jun 22)