Threats to national security and prosperity have risen, both at home and abroad, in the years since 9/11, the deadliest ever terrorist attacks on the United States. Although critics are reluctant to admit it, President Trump has addressed some of these well. Cracking down on China, for instance, was long overdue. So was killing two jihadi leaders who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in the Middle East.
Persuading the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognize Israel was an important achievement, whether or not Saudi Arabia and other Arab states follow suit. Diplomacy in Afghanistan has resulted in serious talks between the government and the Taliban that may end over 40 years of conflict there. Yet the administration has failed to address some of the most ominous new threats, often for partisan reasons.
Biological weapons and pathogens
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that pathogens can be highly contagious and cost effective killers. Over the 20th century alone, about 300 million people died from smallpox, the variola virus that had killed a third of those it infected before a vaccine was developed. Yet before the collapse in 1991, the former Soviet Union was alleged to have secretly produced and stockpiled 100 metric tons of variola a year.
Classical biological weapons have proven hard for terrorists to make or use. Given the recent advances in biotechnology, however, the ability to create genetically modified superbugs is increasingly cheaper and more widespread. After 9/11 and the ensuing anthrax attacks, President Bush increased spending on germ threats. But the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the utter mismanagement of our preparedness effort.
Americans have died for lack of testing, treatment, and protective gear, rather apart from the president who, knowing what he said was untrue, repeatedly assured us that the coronavirus was not as serious as the flu, could miraculously disappear or may respond to a series of questionable treatments, and that wearing masks was not necessary. While Trump has poured billions into research to find a vaccine and better treatments, he has largely spurned the international medical surveillance networks and collaboration needed to spot the emergence of lethal pathogens.
Climate change and environment
While previous administrations warned of the danger of climate change, President Obama tried to define it as a national security priority. However, political foes mocked his Pentagon roadmap on the issue that identified climate climate as an “urgent and growing threat to our national security” and noted how environmental issues as rising seas, eroding coastlines, worsening droughts, melting icecaps, and devastating wildfires would endanger our 7,000 military installations around the world.
Skeptics also belittled the United Nations summit in Paris in 2015, at which the United States and some 200 countries pledged to reduce greenhouse gas and carbon output “as soon as possible” to stabilize global warming to “well below 2 degrees centigrade.” The decision from Trump to withdraw from that treaty on the earliest possible date, a day after the election this November, would leave the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world as the only country to abandon this international effort. Despite the lack of an alternative strategy, Trump derided the Paris agreement as a “total disaster” that has harmed our competitiveness.
As deadly wildfires roared across the West Coast last week, consuming over 6 million acres of Oregon, California, and Washington, about double a typical season, West Coast residents endured toxic air, triple digit heat, and rolling blackouts. As a result, climate change has turned into a much more important election issue. “If you are in denial about climate change,” said Governor Gavin Newsom, “come to California.”
Severe weather damage to people and economies around the world has triggered destabilizing mass migrations on a scale that might ultimately deny The effort by Trump to secure our national border with a wall or by any other means. A World Bank study found that worsening weather for Southeast Asia, home to nearly a fourth of the global population, forced over 8 million people to move toward Europe, the Middle East, and North America. About 17 million to 36 million more could be on the move, the World Bank projects, with similar migrations in the Americas.
Digital networks and cyberthreats
As in so many areas, our offense is more developed than our defense of air space, critical dams, power grids, digital networks, and our other essential infrastructure. Although plenty of this information remains classified, the Washington Post, based on the documents provided by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, noted several years ago that intelligence agencies had conducted more than 200 offensive cyberoperations during 2011 alone, with most targeting foriegn adversaries as Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea, and such activities as nuclear proliferation.
By contrast, government reports and independent studies suggest that our critical infrastructure, most of it in private hands, remains appallingly vulnerable. In March, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, founded by the late Senator John McCain, issued the report finding that most of our digital networks which store, process, and analyze data have likely been compromised. “We are in a new permanent state of conflict, indeed, of war,” said a Russian expert with access to defense information.
Given our inability to protect our digital and physical infrastructure, it is not a war that the country is positioned to win. Microsoft recently joined intelligence agencies with asserting that the Russian military intelligence unit that attacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 continues to launch ever stealthier attacks on both political parties.
The warning came a day after the government whistleblower alleged the White House and Homeland Security Department suppressed intelligence about continued Russian hacking because it made Trump “look bad” and ordered analysts to focus on Iran and China. The White House denies that charge, but the reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin reinforces notions about whether he hopes to benefit from Russian hacking.
The allegation from Microsoft that Russia is a more sophisticated hacker than China or Iran also contradicts the White House narrative that China poses the more serious cyberthreat. Moreover, the finding that China has mostly targeted the campaign of Joe Biden undermines the White House charge that China is interfering with the election to assist him.
Domestic insurrection and unrest
The United States has more guns than people. So think about what right wing extremists might do if Trump is defeated in what they perceive to be a stolen election. Or, for that matter, what those anarchists and left wing extremists have been doing in Seattle, Portland, Kenosha, Rochester, and other cities where peaceful protests have turned violent at night.
In a recent virtual meeting hosted by the Common Good, an organization that encourages dialogue and bipartisan policies, Jane Harman, a former Democratic lawmaker who now directs the Wilson Center in Washington, and Michael Chertoff, a former Homeland Security secretary, agreed that while jihadi terrorism still poses a grave threat, the growth of domestic terrorism, notably right wing extremists, concerns them more.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies found, based on reviews of nearly 900 terrorist plots and attacks in the United States between 1994 and 2020, that not only did right wing attacks and plots account for the majority of domestic incidents and rose “significantly, outpacing terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including those from far left networks and people inspired by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.” Right wing extremists perpetrated a majority of the plots and attacks in the country last year and over 90 percent this year.
Chertoff said that his “paramount” concern is that foreign or domestic interference with the voting process will undermine confidence and the legitimacy of our elections. Any protracted legal and political battle, he warned, would make the case of George Bush versus Al Gore “look like a kindergarten exercise.” Thus, the lack of faith in our democratic system might be the greatest threat of all to our national security.
This piece originally appeared on The Hill
Photo by Pgiam/iStock