Charlie Reed, a fantastic Japan-based reporter for Stars & Stripes, thoroughly confounded me last weekend with a long story extolling the US military's efforts to court young, cyber-savvy "hackers" to aid the Pentagon's nascent Cyber Command. "As CYBERCOM assumes authority of the digital battlefront," Reed wrote, "the military is embracing the hacker community in its pursuit of people to help secure the DOD’s 15,000 networks and potentially exploit weaknesses in outside networks."
The piece was well-written and solidly reported, except for one thing: Not a single of its 1,200-plus words was "Bradley," "Manning," or "WikiLeaks."
Sure, the story has US commanders acknowledging that it takes a hacker to beat a hacker. It has them admitting that building "an effective cyberforce with these types of individuals requires fundamental changes to the military culture." (Under "understatement" in the dictionary, see that quote.) But here is the extent of the culture shift that Lt. Col. Gregory Conti, a West Point cybersecurity researcher, thinks is needed:
"Ultimately you want to create an environment that’s so cool, so bad ass, they don't want to leave," Conti said. "We can do that."
Allow me a moment to shudder.
Conti's unfortunate analysis on how to snag a choice code jockey isn't an isolated paradigm fail. Anyone who's worked in public affairs, info ops, or cybersecurity knows the Defense Department lacks a fundamental understanding of how hacking, or social media, or open digital systems, or really anything else cybernetic, works.
As a public affairs contractor for Multinational Corps-Iraq, I worked with the general staff to start a Corps Facebook account. Thus ensued a laborious process of having to get special SPAWAR computer terminals to work on sites like Facebook, which are blocked on the military's standard internet system, the Nonsecure Internet Protocol Router (NIPRnet). Even after that, staff officers expressed tons of misgivings about the project: Could it be hacked? Could people leave rude, obnoxious comments? Can we still edit and review content before it's posted? While some of the concerns were well-founded, most demonstrated to me that their speakers had no clue what Facebook and its media peers were good for -- just that they were somehow critical.
On the same day Reed's story was published, the Associated Press reported that liberal, anti-war filmmaker Michael Moore donated $5,000 to the defense fund of Private Manning, who's suspected of passing hundreds of thousands of secret US war reports and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. "He did a courageous thing and he did a patriotic thing," Moore said.
Manning's case is instructive. He was a cyber-savvy intel weenie, a person with precisely the sort of skill set the military wants. But he was also reportedly megalomaniacal, depressed, and gay -- three things that, along with hackerishness, the military doesn't exactly smile upon.
And that's exactly the point: As Reed's article proves, US officials want the hacker's skills -- which they don't comprehend -- and they don't want his temperament, which they comprehend even less. These sorts of kids don't want to feel cool. Most of them have spent their lives eschewing what's cool. No, to appeal to them, the military must do several things it's proven wont to do: It must argue how, in detailed ways, the defense establishment is a force for good, not for ill, in the world. It must be unafraid to devolve responsibility to these personal entrepreneurs, rather than trying to micromanage their mystifying work via a stultifying bureaucracy.
And finally, it must stop criminalizing homosexuality.
The rub: The Pentagon must do all this and still be able to screen out people who have no business dealing with secret information, as Manning didn't. That may be the Stars & Stripes story's starkest implication: In its zeal to co-opt folks like Bradley Manning, it risks being co-opted by groups like WikiLeaks.
So be it, DOD: Unless you're ready for a real revolution in thought, you'll go to cyberwar with the hackers you have, not the ones you want.