From technology executive to counterterrorism expert
FORTUNE — Former Microsoft (MSFT) CTO Nathan Myhrvold has been anything but idle since stepping out of his role as computer technology czar, founding a controversial patent hoarding venture that is now among the world’s largest owners of intellectual property and authoring a 48-pound, 2,400-page tome on the art and science of contemporary cooking. But quietly the former tech titan’s broad interests have pushed him into another unlikely pursuit, one that has earned him audiences with several of Capitol Hill’s thought leaders in national security over the past couple of weeks: counterterrorism.
Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, countless white papers have circulated both the Beltway and Crystal City, but over the past couple of months a plainly-written, 33-page document recently published by Myhrvold has stood out among them, generating a great deal of buzz in national security circles. Myhrvold’s message: The economics of large-scale lethality have changed, making it easier (and cheaper) than ever for small, stateless groups to obtain the tools of mass destruction. And while the U.S. government spends its energy and money trying to prevent bombings and hijackings that might kill a few dozen or a few hundred people, the real threats are nuclear, chemical, and especially biological — the kinds of things that will easily kill a few hundred thousand.
Though Myhrvold admits it’s difficult to talk about these kinds of things without sounding alarmist, he spends his word count making a compelling, if discomforting, case. “The novelty of our present situation is that modern technology can provide small groups of people with much greater lethality than ever before,” he writes. “We now have to worry that private parties might gain access to weapons that are as destructive as — or possibly even more destructive than — those held by any nation-state. A handful of people, perhaps even a single individual, now have the ability to kill millions or even billions. Indeed, it is perfectly feasible, from a technological standpoint, to kill every man, woman, and child on earth.”
It might seem strange that a former chief technologist for a company best known for its word processing and Windows software should be considering such doomsday scenarios in the context of national security, but Myhrvold’s argument is rooted firmly in the trajectory of technology and its impact on the economics of terror. Technology’s forward march has enabled these non-state actors to more-easily acquire these destructive capabilities, he argues. And if the U.S. government and its security apparatus doesn’t wake up to these changing economics of technology and terror, a large-scale terror event — one with loss of life in the tens if not hundreds of thousands — is practically unavoidable.
The TSA won’t foil this kind of strategic terror attack, yet tactical counterterrorism like security screenings of air passengers remains the focus of most of the counterterrorism establishment. The security apparatus isn’t functioning like it should be to thwart large-scale strategic terror, and the way to fix that is to look at how other well-managed organizations function. What we need, in other words, is a strategic terror CEO.
“A basic principle of management accountability is to ask the following question: Who is the most senior person in the organization whose full-time job is dedicated to function x?” Myhrvold writes. But within the counterterrorism community there is no such person dedicated purely to strategic, large-scale terrorism threats. Bioterror is arguably the most pressing threat facing the government with the potential to unleash staggering loss of life, yet where one does find bioterror experts within the security hierarchy those individuals are not in positions to make strategic decisions.
Those in charge, on the other hand, are not focused on any one threat but on all aspects of terror, both tactical and strategic. There’s no decision-maker dedicated to thinking about large-scale strategic terror. And just as a company with no chief of marketing is unlikely to be very good at marketing, a country with no strategic terror chief is unlikely to be very good at perceiving and preventing strategic terror.
Myhrvold actually wrote most of the paper prior to 2006 and had no intention of publishing it, but a meeting with Benjamin Wittes, editor of the wonky but influential national security and legal site Lawfare, led to its being published on that site back in July. In the intervening months it has become a topic du jour in Washington security circles, finding its way into discussions on legal forums, into lunchroom conversations and lectures, and even into the halls of Congress. The CTO-turned-cookbook-writer-turned-counterterrorism-expert has been taking meetings on The Hill this month as various agency personnel and Congressional committee members have sought him out.
Of course, Myhrvold’s admission into the national security brain trust doesn’t necessarily mean anything will change. And if meetings with national security agencies and members of Congress lend credibility to the paper’s assumptions — or at least indicate that there are others within the security infrastructure that agree with Myhrvold’s assessment of its counterterrorism shortcomings — that’s not necessarily a good omen.
“We will most likely continue to lumber along on our current path, addressing some issues and ignoring others,” Myhrvold concludes his paper. “Then the terrorists will launch the next attack. With luck, we will detect it in time to prevent a major disaster, but a more likely scenario is that a strategic-terror attack in the next decade or so will kill between 100,000 and one million americans. Then we will surely get serious about strategic terrorism.”
“Or we could start now.”