Apr 28 2008

AFCYBER seeks fat Airmen with criminal records

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The council on Foreign Relations held a roundtable with Major General William T. Lord, the top digital pilot at Air Force Cyberspace Command. The press gave him some ink over the following quote:

“Perhaps we need a different kind of warrior in this domain. Today, all of our armed forces have a physical fitness test… Perhaps that’s not the right construct for these kinds of kids in the future… How do you attract the brains of some of this crowd that you might not want to wire up to a polygraph, but yet use their wonderful innovative ability. But they’re not the same kind of folks that perhaps you want to march to breakfast in the morning.”

It sounds like the general subscribes to a Hollywood version of hackers who’d be declared “4F” if not for their amazing criminal minds. This, my friends, is just one more thing I find wrong with today’s “cyberspace” leadership.

Lord wants you to think the Air Force only just started to look at hackers. Bah! When I enlisted as a “3C0X2″ (computer programmer) in 1982, I was surrounded by socially inept hackers with acceptable physical standards who started off the day with a can of soda back when coffee was the only acceptable morning beverage. Computer programmers were a unique species even back then, having been specifically trained at Tech School to ask “why?” whenever someone told them to do something a certain way.

And guys like me, who got to write software for NATO Intelligence? I assure you we were the weird ones in our crowd. We’d wear dickies with our fatigue uniforms just because NATO allowed it. If eight of us wanted lunch, we’d march all the way to the chow hall in formation just to screw with traffic. Naturally, our formations always crossed against the red lights.

And yes: we crashed that multimillion-dollar production NATO mainframe (twice!) to demonstrate a flaw deep within in its NSA-approved MLS OS.

As my career matured into the 1990s, I watched the same kids as me coming through the pipeline. They drank sodas in the morning just like I did and they couldn’t date a girl to save their life. They took great pride in messing around with the Air Force bureaucracy.

At the end of my career in 2003-07, I watched the new batch come through the pipeline and they’re exactly like the guys I hung out with. Sure: they can buy more toys than I grew up with, and they can type on a mobile phone almost as fast as I type on a keyboard, and they’ve racked up some “tent time” in the barren lands of Iraq & Afghanistan (just like I did). But deep down, they’re the same as always — a bunch of nerdy little dweebs who can look at the back of a malfunctioning Cisco router and instantly realize it has exceeded its bandwidth limit for serial plane zero … yet who turn into Forrest Gump whenever they bump into a cute female airman wearing pink lipstick.

Ignore General Lord and listen to me, folks. I have absolutely no doubt the Air Force will find the kids they need to wear a uniform. They’ve been putting kids like me into uniforms for decades! As for the hackers who can’t survive two months of basic training? Bah. Let them pick up a military contractor job with Microsoft or Symantec — if their rap sheets don’t stop them from getting a security clearance in the first place.

USAF RIGHT NOW is cluttered — dare I say “choked”? — with bureaucrats. Choked with people like General Lord who subscribe to the Hollywood view of what their troops should be. Choked with people like Captain Goza who don’t even know what “cyber” means. And then there are the worst of the bunch: people who drool at “cyber” as a means to pad their officer evaluations and civilian performance reports. They don’t have a clue how to bring it all together but hey, the Chief of Staff told them to stand up a cyber mission and they’re going to be the ones who get a Meritorious Service Medal for doing it!

I’ve bumped into heaven-knows-how-many idiots who claim they were the first ones to kick-start the Air Force cyberspace mission in some obscenely obscure fashion. “Well, not to brag, but I’m the guy that wrote that classified ‘just thinking outside the box’ email to JJ (that’s retired chief of staff John Jumper, back then just the commander of 9th Air Force) asking him why his folks were doing X instead of Y, and I’m happy to say that JJ wrote me back to say that was a great idea and he’d put one of his best light-birds right on it…”

The Air Force suffers from too many shallow thinkers in cyberspace. You can identify them by the way they answer a single question. “What does USAF mean by ‘sovereign options’ in cyberspace?” The shallow ones will start off with a bunch of hemming & hawing, followed by gobbledygook. “Well, you see, um, the Air Force cyberspace operations give us the ‘pointy end of the spear,’ helping us to synergistically complement and coalesce all kinetic and non-kinetic weapon systems at our disposal…” Try not to smirk when you identify them. It ruins the mood of the moment.

But when you do identify these people, I implore you to drive a knife into their egos. “That’s very interesting! You know, security critic Rob Rosenberger argues that USAF will all but lose its first cyberwar due to a fundamental flaw in its ‘sovereign options’ doctrine. What’s your opinion of that flaw?” Again, try not to smirk. It ruins the mood of the moment.

Mark my words. We’re going to pay life insurance for some people in uniform in a real cyberwar. We’re going to lose lives tomorrow thanks to today’s shallow self-serving bureaucrats — and if you recall my prediction from 2002, I said we’ll lose lives twice thanks to those very same self-serving bureaucrats. I want those bureaucrats to get out of the way so the real cyber warriors can reshape the Air Force.

“Okay Rob, who are the real cyber warriors and who are the fakes?” Excellent question. I’ll paraphrase George Carlin. If you’re in cyberspace and you feel like you’re part of the solution, then you may very well be part of the solution. But if you run around in public telling people “I’m in cyberspace and I’m part of the solution,” then you’re part of the problem. Get out of the way.