Thinktank: Risk of Cyberattack on Nuclear Weapons Systems Relatively High

Quite concerning, and all the more reason that the NSA and GCHQ should primarily be focused on defending the population instead of engaging in harmful mass surveillance.

US, British and other nuclear weapons systems are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks, according to a new study by the international relations thinktank Chatham House.

The threat has received scant attention so far from those involved in nuclear military planning and the procurement of weapons, the report said.

It blames this partly on failure to keep up with fast-moving advances, lack of skilled staff and the slowness of institutional change.

“Nuclear weapons systems were developed before the advancement of computer technology and little consideration was given to potential cyber vulnerabilities. As a result, current nuclear strategy often overlooks the widespread use of digital technology in nuclear systems,” the authors of the study said.

Nuclear weapons systems are at threat from hostile states, criminal groups and terrorist organisations exploiting cyber vulnerabities.

“The likelihood of attempted cyber-attacks on nuclear weapons systems is relatively high and increasing from advanced persistent threats from states and non-state groups,” the report said.

It cited examples such as a report the US could have infiltrated the supply chain of North Korea’s missile system that contributed to a test failure in April last year. The silos of US nuclear-tipped Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles “are believed to be particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks”.

The study also recorded illicit trafficking in Moldova and Georgia of radioactive and nuclear materials; a group in Belgium affiliated to Islamic State monitoring the movements of a nuclear scientist; and German-owned Patriot missiles reported to have been hacked in 2015.

The report, Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems: Threats, Vulnerabilities and Consequences, was written by Beyza Unal, a research fellow at London-based Chatham House who previously worked on strategic analysis at Nato, and Patricia Lewis, research director of the international security department at Chatham House.

“There are a number of vulnerabilities and pathways through which a malicious actor may infiltrate a nuclear weapons system without a state’s knowledge,” the report said. “Human error, systems failures, design vulnerabilities and susceptibilities within the supply chain all represent common security issues in nuclear weapons systems.”

[…]

“Many aspects of nuclear weapons development and systems management are privatised in the US and in the UK, potentially introducing a number of private-sector supply chain vulnerabilities.”

It added: “Presently, this is a relatively ungoverned space and these vulnerabilities could serve to undermine the overall integrity of national nuclear weapons systems. For example, the backdoors in software that companies often maintain to fix bugs and patch systems are targets for cyber-attacks once they are discovered and become known.”

Potential artificial intelligence (AI) applications, while creating new opportunities for cybersecurity, add another layer of complexity for nuclear weapons that could be exploited.

The authors criticise military failures to – so far – take the issue seriously. “Military procurement programmes tend not to pay adequate consideration to emerging cyber risks – particularly to the supply chain – regardless of the government regulations for protecting data against cyber attacks. This could be due to constantly lagging behind the fast-moving nature of cyber attacks, a lack of skilled personnel and the slow institutional and organisational implementation of changes.”

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Warnings and Lessons from Hawaii’s Mistaken Alarm

It is quite arguably a miracle that humanity has managed to avert widespread catastrophe by nuclear weapons thus far, as the record shows.

“This is not a drill,” announced the emergency alert, and for 37 minutes hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians and tourists were left to contemplate the possibility that an incoming missile might soon end their lives.

Now that we know the “ballistic missile threat inbound” warning was in error there are urgent lessons to review. As a former secretary of defense, my advice is we treat the Hawaii incident not as a false alarm but a real one. It highlighted an emphatically genuine risk that human error or technological failure—or some fatal combination of the two—could result in a horrific nuclear catastrophe.

From what we have learned about Hawaii—a single person clicked the wrong item on a computer drop-down menu—it is clear that the state’s alert system is in need of some basic improvements. Most obviously it should require a two-person instead of a one-person decision system. A two-person system, long established in comparable military systems, would significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the probability of such a mistake happening again. But if that is the only change made we would be learning the wrong lesson from this wake-up call.

[…]

What happened in Hawaii is a new manifestation of an old problem. For decades, Cold War policymakers worried that a false report of missiles flying might prompt a leader to launch real missiles in retaliation. As a Pentagon official in 1979, I was awakened in the middle of the night by an Air Force watch officer who reported that his screen showed hundreds of Soviet missiles on the way. For a terrible moment, I thought a nuclear Armageddon was at hand. He quickly reassured me that it was an unexplained technological error. But that incident shaped my thinking for decades. What if exactly that same error had happened in October 1962, when as an intelligence consultant during the Cuban missile crisis I returned to my Washington hotel room each night convinced that nuclear war was imminent? We survived multiple Cold War close calls through a combination of good management and—to a troubling degree—plain good luck.

[…]

The consequences in Hawaii were that people were terrified. They were terrified not only because they thought that they and their families were going to die, but because they had no idea of “what to do.” That could have led to heart attacks or to automobile accidents, but such results, happily, have not been reported so far.

That they didn’t know what to do is fundamental to a nuclear attack, especially if the missile is carrying a hydrogen bomb. One hydrogen bomb could kill essentially everyone in a city like Honolulu or Hilo, even if the residents took cover. So the “what to do” has to happen before the missile is fired. The way to save yourself and your family from being killed in a nuclear war is to keep such a war from happening. Once the missiles are launched, it is too late. And that is one important lesson we could learn from the Hawaii false alert.

But there is also a second lesson. If the attack alert came from our military warning system, the president would be faced immediately with an existential decision. He would have 5 to 10 minutes to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in their silos.

If he decides to launch them, and it is a false alert (that could be caused by any of the reasons given above), there will be no way to call them back or abort them in flight. He will have mistakenly started World War III, a war likely to destroy our civilization.

The U.S. military has been aware of this existential problem for many decades, and it has taken heroic actions to lower the probability of a false alert. Still, there have been three false alerts, one of which looked very real and could very well have led to a launch decision. It is to the great credit of our military leaders and the system they have put in place that we have never had a mistaken launch order. But the danger is actually greater now than during the Cold War, with the emergence of malicious hackers and government-directed hackers.

So the primary lesson from the Hawaii false alert is that even with the highly capable system our military now has in place, we are still vulnerable to such an alert. And the consequence of a mistaken launch order is no less than the end of our civilization as we know it.

The article doesn’t mention reducing the sheer amount of nuclear weapons, but that of course is an important initiative.

Reports: Pentagon Preparing for Potential War with North Korea & Developing New Nuclear Weapons

Accurate analysis requires calm. That being said, nuclear war must be noted as an existential threat to human survival, and there are various respected Cold War era analysts who say that these times presents a higher risk of nuclear war than the Cold War. The Doomsday Clock — measuring the likelihood of nuclear war and human annihilation — is at the closest to midnight that it’s ever been since 1953 for a reason.

The New York Times reports the Pentagon is quietly preparing for a potential war with North Korea, with the U.S. military launching a series of war games and exercises from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the skies above Nevada, to a planned deployment of even more special operations troops to the Korean Peninsula during the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month. The planning for a potential nuclear war comes as President Trump has repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear strike against North Korea.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal is reporting the Pentagon is also planning to develop two new sea-based nuclear weapons. The report is based on a new Defense Department nuclear strategy review, which says the proposed new nuclear weapons would be to counter Russia and China. Last week, The Guardian reported the Trump administration is planning to loosen the restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a nuclear warhead for U.S. Trident missiles. This all comes as Trump has proposed building up the United States’ nuclear arsenal and has reportedly asked, about nuclear weapons, “If we had them, why can’t we use them?”

Here’s the link to the referenced New York Times article. This is a reference to a previous report showing that the Trump regime is planning to loosen constraints on nuclear weapons. On what can be done to stop nuclear war, initial recommendations are to raise awareness of the threat, support organized efforts to reform the nuclear launch approval process, and significantly reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Was Whistleblowing Worth It? Discussion of Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden

This is a relevant conversation between two historic whistleblowers, and they discuss the threats to press freedom and the threat of nuclear war. I would have preferred some different questions with a longer discussion, however.

Daniel Ellsberg, the US whistleblower celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, was called “the most dangerous man in America” by the Nixon administration in the 70s. More than 40 years later, the man he helped inspire, Edward Snowden, was called “the terrible traitor” by Donald Trump, as he called for Snowden’s execution.

The Guardian has brought the two together – the most famous whistleblower of the 20th century and the most famous of the 21st so far – to discuss leaks, press freedom and other issues raised in Spielberg’s film.

[…]

EM: What motivated you to take the final step in becoming a whistleblower?

DE: I would not have thought of doing what I did, which I knew would risk prison for life, without the public example of young Americans going to prison to make a strong statement that the Vietnam war was wrong and they would not participate, even at the cost of their own freedom. Without them, there would have been no Pentagon Papers. Courage is contagious. I have heard you say, Ed, that The Most Dangerous Man in America was a factor in encouraging you to do what you did.

ES: That is absolutely true. While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary. Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.

[…]

EM: Is the threat posed by Trump greater than that posed by Nixon?

DE: I believe this president will indict journalists, which has not happened yet in our country. We fought a revolution to avoid that. And we have not yet broken that first amendment, which protects press freedom, in our constitution. But this president is likely to do so. The climate has changed. And that was true under Obama, who prosecuted three times as many people for leaking as all previous presidents put together – he prosecuted nine. I think Trump will build on that precedent. He will go further and do what Obama did not do and directly indict journalists.

EM: Is the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and fearful of extradition to the US, one of those at risk?

ES: Julian’s best defence, perhaps his only enduring defence, is that he is a publisher and has never even tried, as far as we are aware, to publish something untruthful. There are lots of criticisms, many of which are legitimate, to be said about his political views or his personal expressions or the way he put things or his agenda. But ultimately the truth speaks for itself.

DE: Assange is in danger. There are those who say that Julian does not have to fear extradition if he came out of the embassy and served a brief sentence, if anything at all, for violating the rules. I think that is absurd. I think Britain would ship him over here [to the US] in a minute and we would never see or hear from him again … under Trump, he may well be the first journalist in this country to be indicted.

EM: What about whistleblowing to prevent a US attack on North Korea?

DE: I am sure there are thousands of people in the Pentagon and the White House who know an attack on North Korea would be disastrous because they have estimates and studies that show the outcome of a supposedly limited attack would be catastrophic in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of lives and what comes after.

ES: What would you say, Dan, to the next whistleblower, who is sitting in the Pentagon? They have seen the attack on North Korea planned, they have seen the consequences and it can be stopped.

DE: They have, of course, something I did not have then, which is they can go directly to the internet. And that is not something I would advise them to do. I think that, let’s see, in your case you went to the Guardian, you did not put the stuff on the net directly as you could have done. I think you did the right thing … If the New York Times does not do it, if the Guardian does not do it, you have the internet to go to.

EM: Was whistleblowing worth it?

DE: I once read a statement by Ed Snowden that there are things worth dying for. And I read the same thing by Manning, who said she was ready to go to prison or even face a death sentence for what she was doing. And I read those comments and I thought: that is what I felt. That is right. It is worth it. Is it worth someone’s freedom or life to avert a war with North Korea? I would say unhesitatingly: “Yes, of course.” Was it worth Ed Snowden spending his life in exile to do what he did? Was it worth it for Manning, spending seven and a half years in prison? Yes, I think so. And I think they think so. And I think they are right.

Trump Regime to Loosen Nuclear Weapons Constraints, Further Increasing the Likelihood of Nuclear War

Nuclear weapons are an existential threat to human survival, and so any policy that increases the risk of nuclear catastrophe must be denounced strongly. The human species is quite fortunate that there have thus far been no nuclear attacks outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which were more than horrible enough.

The Obama-Trump nuclear weapons program has significantly increased “killing power,” as revealed by an important study in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and that’s all the more worrying with Trump’s mental deterioration in the White House.

The Trump administration plans to loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a new low-yield nuclear warhead for US Trident missiles, according to a former official who has seen the most recent draft of a policy review.

Jon Wolfsthal, who was special assistant to Barack Obama on arms control and nonproliferation, said the new nuclear posture review prepared by the Pentagon, envisages a modified version of the Trident D5 submarine-launched missiles with only part of its normal warhead, with the intention of deterring Russia from using tactical warheads in a conflict in Eastern Europe.

The new nuclear policy is significantly more hawkish that the posture adopted by the Obama administration, which sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defence.

Arms control advocates have voiced alarm at the new proposal to make smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons, arguing it makes a nuclear war more likely, especially in view of what they see as Donald Trump’s volatility and readiness to brandish the US arsenal in showdowns with the nation’s adversaries.

The NPR also expands the circumstances in which the US might use its nuclear arsenal, to include a response to a non-nuclear attack that caused mass casualties, or was aimed at critical infrastructure or nuclear command and control sites.

The nuclear posture review (NPR), the first in eight years, is expected to be published after Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech at the end of January.

[…]

Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, said that the development of new weapons in the US nuclear arsenal was “dangerous, Cold War thinking”.

“The United States already possesses a diverse array of nuclear capabilities, and there is no evidence that more usable weapons will strengthen deterrence of adversaries or compel them to make different choices about their arsenals,” Kimball wrote on the Arms Control Today website.

He also cautioned against moves to broaden the circumstances in which nuclear weapons would be used.

“The use of even a small number of these weapons would be catastrophic,” Kimball said. “Threatening nuclear attack to counter new kinds of ‘asymmetric’ threats is unnecessary, would increase the risk of nuclear weapons use, and would make it easier for other countries to justify excessive roles for nuclear weapons in their policies.”

A Secret Kept for Decades: Daniel Ellsberg and Nuclear Weapons

It turns out that Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg has more secrets to reveal from his days as a high ranking U.S. government official. This time the secrets aren’t about the Vietnam War — they’re about nuclear weapons, the threats that represent the very real possibility of massive human annihilation.

“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose.

It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine.

[…]

Ellsberg believed that his bureaucratic opponents — mainly the military brass — were not thinking through the consequences of nuclear war. Then, in 1961, he was allowed to see a piece of information previously unknown even to Kennedy, the death count the military projected for theoretical strikes: some 600 million, not including any Americans killed in counterattacks. (That was still an underestimate.) Ellsberg writes of being gripped with a feeling of revulsion, realizing that the document “depicted evil beyond any human project ever.” The planners weren’t heedless — they intended to inflict maximal civilian casualties. “The shock was to realize that the Joint Chiefs knew,” Ellsberg tells me. “I was working for people who were crazier than I had thought. I had thought that they had inadvertently constructed a doomsday machine, without knowing it.”

The better Ellsberg came to understand the workings of the nuclear command-and-control system, the more danger he felt. He writes that the idea that authority to launch a nuclear war rested solely with the president was a myth, and that the nuclear “football” carried by a military attaché to the president is just “theater.” Working for the Defense Department, Ellsberg traveled throughout Asia, where he discovered there were many plausible scenarios in which officers might feel authorized to launch a nuclear attack in the absence of presidential orders. Safeguards were easy to circumvent. (For decades, purportedly, the eight-digit code to launch a Minuteman missile was set at 00000000.) Visiting an air base on Okinawa, Ellsberg touched a hydrogen bomb, and noted the “bodylike warmth” of a device capable of killing millions.

“It did give me a feeling — an eerie, an uncanny feeling, a feeling of dread to some extent,” Ellsberg says. “But not the feeling that this should not exist.” That came later.

[…]

One of the documents in his safe, as the FBI surely knew, was a classified nuclear study commissioned by Kissinger. “It’s the same old Dr. Strangelove stuff: 90 million dead, 120 million dead,” Ellsberg says. “But I was going to put that out, of course.” Ellsberg stashed that memo, along with all the other nuclear materials, in a box and gave the lot to his brother, Harry, who later wrapped them in plastic and buried them in the compost pile behind his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. Harry, who is now dead, told his brother that the FBI came poking around the compost pile. But he had already moved the box to another hiding spot, beneath a big iron stove in the garbage dump in Tarrytown.

Ellsberg intended to arrange for the nuclear papers to be leaked after his trial in Los Angeles, where he was sure he would be convicted. But then he was vindicated through a chain of events he calls a “miracle.” The Watergate investigation revealed the activities of Nixon’s plumbers, including the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The case against him was dismissed. Afterward, though, Harry gave him some bad news: A tropical storm had flooded the dump in 1971. The nuclear papers were lost.

“It was unbearable to me,” Ellsberg says. It is afternoon, and the softening light is filtering through redwoods out his office window. “That was a shadow over the next 40 years, thinking I fucked up, you know?” I ask whether it was possible that Harry, out of fear for himself or his brother, might have actually destroyed the documents. “No,” Ellsberg replies, firmly. “It was very clear that he was anguished by it. Later in his life, before he died, he said that had been something agonizing at him for all this time.”

The Doomsday Machine represents Ellsberg’s attempt to reconstruct, via his memories and now-declassified documents, the knowledge that was washed away. The book examines many close brushes with nuclear war. He says that at least twice during the Cold War — once aboard a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, once inside an air defense bunker outside Moscow in 1983 — a single individual came close to triggering a nuclear war because of a false alarm. “There is a chance that somebody will be a circuit breaker,” Ellsberg says. “What I conclude is that we’re lucky, very lucky.”

Daniel Ellsberg also did an interview with Democracy Now… It really is a relevant issue to cover with nuclear catastrophe being totally possible. The Doomsday Clock is almost ominously standing at 2.5 minutes to midnight, which is the closest its been to midnight since thermonuclear weapons were detonated in 1953. Some respected analysts have even said that the risk of nuclear war today is higher than it was during the Cold War.

 

Nobel Prize Awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

ICAN

Nuclear weapons are a significant and widely underrated threat to the survival of people generally. The Doomsday Clock is currently at 2.5 minutes to midnight, which — besides when thermonuclear weapons were being tested by the two global superpowers in 1953 — is the closest it has ever been to midnight. The Nobel Peace Prize granted to this international campaign should thankfully raise awareness of these important concerns for the potential catastrophe that’s possible from the use of nuclear weapons.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, known as ICAN, is a coalition of nongovernmental organizations in more than 100 countries. Launched in 2007, ICAN helped organize a landmark victory this year: the world’s first legally binding treaty banning nuclear weapons. The treaty was adopted by 122 U.N. member states in July, and signed by 51 countries during U.N. General Assembly Week in September. The treaty prohibits the development, testing and possession of nuclear weapons, as well as using or threatening to use these weapons. It was adopted and signed by dozens of countries despite the fierce opposition of the United States and other nuclear-armed nations.

Statement from ICAN: “This is a time of great global tension, when fiery rhetoric could all too easily lead us, inexorably, to unspeakable horror. The spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more. If ever there were a moment for nations to declare their unequivocal opposition to nuclear weapons, that moment is now.”