This Week in Magazines: Cybercrime, Financial Aristocrats and Snakes

03/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Warren Washington Bureau Chief, New York Daily News; Former managing editor, Chicago Tribune

The new season of "24," the declining Fox stalwart with Kiefer Sutherland as renegade intelligence agent Jack Bauer, inspires chatter about the role of aggressive interrogations in a kinder, gentler Obama era. As chagrined liberals know, the seemingly humbled Bauer was a very nasty soul with bad guys as he defended our national honor post-9/11.

However, this season might have prompted discussion on a different topic, namely what Feb. 7 National Journal calls, "The Cybercrime Wave."

This season initially turns on an African despot who's got a gizmo enabling him to override the U.S. government's security system. He can screw around with commercial planes in the air and with valves in a chemical plant, in both cases resulting in pre-meditated deaths. Far-fetched? Probably not and it's why this Shane Harris piece should get the Obama administration thinking even more than they are about cybercrime as a national security problem.

For sure, the piece focuses on booming financial fraud and is thus worrisome enough. There's a well-chronicled black market for credit card and financial account information, with the former being bigger but the latter exhibiting more potential since "the potential payout can be greater because most bank balances are higher than credit card cash-advance limits." After credit cards and financial accounts, favorite objects of theft include Social Security numbers, gift cards, department-store credit cards, e-mail addresses and login information for social-networking sites.

As Harris underscores, criminals realize that the Internet is far more profitable, efficient and safer than bashing somebody over the head and robbing them on the street. Security breaches are soaring, with the sexier examples including hackers ripping off 94 million records from the company that owns the discount chain TJ Maxx.

But potentially more relevant to Obama, the fictional Jack Bauer and all of us is this: "For intelligence and security officials, the line between financial crime and cyber-espionage---or perhaps even cyber-warfare---is a thin one. In their view, cyber-terrorists or nation-states could use the same devices to disrupt the U.S. economy broadly as cyber-thieves already do on a more targeted scale."

President Bush was a bit late to this topic but did wind up appreciating the dangers. His top intelligence official, Mike McConnell, argued to him that if the 9/11 terrorists had assaulted our banking system with computers, rather than the World Trade Center with planes, the consequences would have been "an order of magnitude greater" than the physical attack. Bush later issued an important executive order involving a national cyber initiative.

Harris concludes that Obama and friends "seem ready to take an all-encompassing view, one that recognizes the dynamic and interchangeable nature of the Internet underground and the cyber black market. They'll have their work cut out for them."

---So what kind of guy fathers two kids with Elle Macpherson, is now engaged to Uma Thurman, is a magnanimous patron of charities and is proof that, if born with a huge silver spoon in your mouth, you can still do good while doing well? Check out a strong February issue of Bloomberg Markets.

The answer is French-born, Swiss-educated financial aristocrat and cover boy Arpad Busson, 46, who manages a hotshot so-called fund-of funds (you give him your money to invest in many hedge funds which he closely monitors). Reporters Stephanie Baker and Tom Cahill do a fine job in crafting both "The Charmed Life of Arpad Busson," which serves as a strong look at the hedge fund and fund-of-fund sectors, and the related "From Getting to Giving," a look at how even benevolent hedge funds are both cutting back on charitable giving and seeking more empirical analysis of charities' results.

Elsewhere in the issue, "Showdown in Charlotte," offers a tough-minded inspection of Bank of America Corp. boss Kenneth Lewis and whether he's really up to shepherding his disputed purchase of Merrill Lynch. This is revealing about Lewis and his strategic shortcomings, even if it's just a bit dated, published before Merrill boss John Thain was ignominiously shown the exit amid lavish spending on his office and other miscues. Also worth checking out are "The Survivor," a profile of Ford Motor Co. chief executive Alan Mullally, and John Lippert's "Chicago School Blues," a very engaging look at how the nation's financial debacle has raised profound debate over the free-market economics associated with the University of Chicago.

Has the hands-off ideology of the legendary economist Milton Friedman run its course? The university's business school and economics department are awash in the debate, with several of the disputants spotlighted here. One of them is young economist Austan Goolsbee, who's moved to Washington as a top advisor to President Obama. He cites the "pragmatic and data-driven" administration approach underlying the stimulus package as proof that Friedman "would approve of Obama's determination to keep policy making rooted in the economic methodologies developed at Chicago," writes Lippert.

---"Conservatism is Dead" is Feb. 18 New Republic's homage to an entire movement by Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times. There are several themes already presented by conservatives themselves, especially as they've feuded over whom to blame for their disasters in the last two federal elections. But this makes the case that the movement has been wayward and mean-spirited for a long time and that, ironically, Barack Obama may have co-opted some of its theoretically more laudable attributes. "At its best, conservatism has served the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times. There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism--a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve."

The issue also includes a sort-of defense of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in "TRB: Spare the Rod," where Jonathan Chait doesn't so much as rally to Blago's defense as suggest that we should have paid more attention to an allegation of a businessman friend's under-the-table payoff to Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), now ensnarled in that endless election dispute with Democrat Al Franken.

--January-February Foreign Affairs includes two intellectual and governmental stalwarts on the Middle East, Richard Haass and Martin Indyk, teaming up for "Beyond Iraq," their counsel for Middle East peace. They argue that we've got to think far beyond the Iraq War, seriously engage Iran and help devise a final-status Israeli Palestinian deal. This acknowledges a slew of complications and possibility of failure, especially with "time of the essence" but with the pace of key negotiations not to be dictated by Washington. And when it comes to a critical constituency in the Israeli-Palestinian mess, namely Hamas, Haass and Indyk urged that Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel do the heavy lifting, not the U.S.

---The Feb. 16 Time cover, "How to Save Your Newspaper" by Walter Isaacson will inspire argument over his "modest proposal" but an important, if not new, notion is hard to dispute, namely that newspapers must figure a way to charge for their online content. Elsewhere, Bobby Ghosh is solid on "Pakistan's Prospects" and David Von Drehle's "What Would Lincoln Do?" is a terrific look at Honest Abe's mostly relevant-to-today views on economics, in no small measure involving his notions of government involvement in developing the Illinois economy after the economic crash of 1837.

---In 1981, President Ronald Reagan busted the air traffic controllers union, PATCO. Feb. 16 Business Week's "CEO Pay: Obama's Reagan Moment" is Michael Mandel's argument that, the obvious loopholes aside, Obama's attack on executive compensation could ultimately change public perception toward corporate chiefs in the same way Reagan altered the public attitude toward unions.

--- Whether or not you've got a five-year-old obsessed with a Kenneth Branagh-narrated BBC series on dinosaurs ("Walking with Dinosaurs"), as I most definitively do, may intrigue with, "A Snake the Size of a Plane---How did prehistoric animals get so big?" This plays off the recent disclosure that scientists have found in Colombia a fossil of a 43-foot snake from many millions of years ago. The answer from Nina Shen Rastogi is, ah, well, to be honest, there really isn't a clear answer.

---What exactly is "brainwashing"? If you step back, you realize that the term has gained currency in many walks of life, including religious cults, terrorism, courts of law and teen behavior modification programs. Vol. 7 of Cultic Studies Review includes "Contemporary Uses of the Brainwashing Concept: 2000 to Mid-2007," an attempt to get a better perspective on the term from Stephen A. Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. He pays particular attention to what the Chinese government may be up to with its anti-Falun Gong campaign. In the process, Kent raises questions, if not providing answers, about whether confinement, force and even manipulative use of drugs are keys to getting people to do things they may not be naturally inclined to do.

---Did you somehow miss the December-January issue of Mass Transit? "Saving Costs, Saving Lives: Diminishing Bus Fires" discloses how a Danish company has installed a self-contained, automatic fire suppression system on its buses in Copenhagen. It doesn't use any electrical source but, instead, a flexible, polymer turbine woven through parts of the busses. Heat causes the tubing to rupture and release the fire suppression agent. Hey, maybe we should have included this jobs-creating gambit in the stimulus package!