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Shadow Elite: Should We Believe Chertoff On Cyber-War?

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What was one of the crucial revelations of the latest WikiLeaks dump? According to
former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, we should be deeply concerned that the leak happened at all. He appeared early last week on Bloomberg TV and nearly a third of the time was spent talking about the internal security breakdown that allowed the breach.

Cyber-security is a recurring theme for Chertoff, and little surprise since his far more relevant and illuminating title these days is not "former Homeland Security chief", but "co-founder of the Chertoff Group", which offers, among other things, cyber-security services. This latter title is the one you see or hear listed second in almost every interview Chertoff does, that is, if it is even mentioned at all. Bloomberg TV gets credit for including both titles in its Chertoff introduction but that appears to be the exception, not the rule.

It was nearly a year ago when, in the wake of the so-called "underwear bomber", Chertoff appeared in various news outlets urging that airports install full body scanners. Conveniently, his Chertoff Group for a time represented scan manufacturer Rapiscan, but the media consistently failed to mention it.

That troubling fact was thankfully, if belatedly, reported early this year, and was once again noted repeatedly during the recent "Don't Touch My Junk" uproar. And yet on cyber-security, Chertoff's stake in the issue once again often goes unsaid, giving the impression that he is a disinterested, impartial observer.

Unfortunately Chertoff is by no means alone. In the shadow elite era, many top power brokers play roles that influence each other to the detriment of the public interest. The media feature "experts" who have actually crafted a "coincidence" of roles that the audience hears little detail about until after the fact. The result is that we -- the public -- are led to believe we are getting impartial advice when we may well be getting a self-serving agenda.

Chertoff has frequently sounded the alarm about cyber-war threats, warning that current policy might lead to the next "Pearl Harbor". But we have to look at his website to find out that one of the Chertoff Group's areas of focus is "Data & cyber security, including detection, encryption, computer forensics and data recovery". And this is a huge business: Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker recently said that the federal government spends as much as an estimated $14 billion a year on cyber-security work.

So with Chertoff's "coincidences of interest" (as it is ironically dubbed) in mind, we looked at the results of a Google search of "Chertoff Cyberwar", which is what an average reader might search if they wanted to learn more about where Chertoff stands on the issue. Out of twenty stories this year (ones published before the WikiLeaks dump), 17 make no mention whatsoever of Chertoff's role other than "former Homeland Security Chief". These stories come from various trade publications as well as web reports from major news organizations including the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and the Guardian newspaper.

Out of the other three stories, one calls Chertoff a "security consultant" halfway through; one actually does mention the Chertoff Group, also halfway through. But the gold star goes to Josh Rushing of the Al Jazeera English program Fault Lines, who mentions in the second line of a Huff Post piece that Chertoff "is now on the board of the world's largest arms dealer, BAE, and heads his own cyber-security consulting firm." Honorable mention goes to a savvy commenter named "Rory", who pointed out the glaring omission in the Journal's story: "Do you suppose that it would be relevant to mention the fact that Mr. Chertoff runs a security consulting company when reporting his views on cybersecurity?"

It is indeed relevant to mention, and not just in the case of Michael Chertoff. Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker doesn't specifically address Chertoff's claims, but does turn a skeptical eye on the claims of other government officials-turned-security consultants. They include former White House national-security aide Richard Clarke, and former director of National Intelligence, Ret. Vice-Admiral J. Michael McConnell, who's now an executive vice-president of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. On concerns about China (the focus this week of cyber-espionage questions revealed in the Wikileaks cables), Hersh writes:

...I was told by military, technical, and intelligence experts that these fears have been exaggerated, and are based on a fundamental confusion between cyber espionage and cyber war. Cyber espionage is the science of covertly capturing e-mail traffic, text messages, other electronic communications, and corporate data.....Cyber war involves the penetration of foreign networks [to disrupt or dismantle] those networks...Blurring the distinction between cyber war and cyber espionage has been profitable for defense contractors...

And key to their success is the way they intertwine state and private power. Booz Allen, the Chertoff Group and Clarke's Good Harbor Consultants are classic creations of the shadow elite era, populated by former government officials regularly sought out by the media for "expert" analysis. The Chertoff Group is quite upfront about noting that "Our principals have worked closely together for years, as leaders of the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the National Security Agency and the CIA." As the Huff Post's Marcus Baram points out, the firm employs nearly a dozen ex-Homeland Security officials. And clearly, it's a selling point - what could be more efficient for private clients than to have so many government insiders trying to sell their products to their old friends?

The only loser here is the public, left to wonder whose interests are being served. It would be enlightening to know what Michael Chertoff really thinks about the threat of cyber warfare, and he very well may be speaking from the heart and head when he warns about the dire threat (which he did years before the Chertoff Group ever existed.) But once a financial interest enters the picture, how can one not wonder if he's actually speaking from the pocketbook? His "expert" advice is inevitably compromised.

The onus is on reporters and editors to make those interests clear. Chertoff can accurately say he isn't hiding anything - as his spokesman told the Washington Post in January, the Chertoff Group had "previously disclosed" that its clients included a maker of body scanners. And in several op-eds, Chertoff does indeed properly identify himself.

That means those putting him on the air or writing about his views must be on top of such disclosures, and aware that their stories will get picked up again and again online, and down the news food chain, using the same identifiers and titles which can either illuminate or obscure. In the shadow elite age, when power brokers can have a dozen roles of influence, criss-crossing and sometimes overlapping, sorting through them to pick the most telling ones is both more difficult - and more imperative - than ever before.

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