Beyond the Headlines

Beyond the Headlines

By John McLaughlin



From cyber attacks and loose nukes to an al-Qaeda offshoot, these five issues deserve your attention.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The NSA surveillance debate has been at center stage for about four months now and shows no sign of abating, with Edward Snowden-derived leaks continuing to appear on at least a weekly basis. I wrote about this early in the debate and will return to it on OZY at some point. For now, though, my point is simply to assert, based on my personal dealings with NSA over many years, that it is truly not interested in our personal lives — that kind of data is the province of Google, Amazon, Facebook and other organizations that want to understand our habits in order to sell us something. 

The NSA wants only to figure out whether any phone numbers or Internet accounts associated with terrorists are trying to contact supporters who may be in the United States. OZY readers may or not be convinced of this, but for now let’s think about a few things not in the headlines that probably should preoccupy us more than the NSA over the long term.

1. Cyberattackers

Whatever concerns people may have about NSA, at least it is on our side. Not so the many countries and independent “hacktivists” that are constantly attacking our information systems. China is reportedly behind much of this. One expert says that every Fortune 1000 company has been the target of Chinese hackers. It is difficult to establish beyond dispute that the Chinese government is behind this, but the authoritative Mandiant Intelligence Center recently published a report alleging that it is, and identifying a specific unit as responsible.

Iran nuclear power plant

Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr, southern Iran, 2010.

Source Corbis

Meanwhile, Symantec estimates the cost to the U.S. economy from intellectual property theft by cyberattackers at $250 billion and the cost from cybercrime (e.g., hackers going after your credit cards) at another $114 billion. 

The government and the private sector are working hard on defenses, but this kind of technology is changing so rapidly that it is hard to get ahead. The big challenge will be to find a way to set global rules and get people and countries to follow them. We are not close to that yet. 

2. Unsecured Nuclear Material

As the United States struggles to arrive at a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear capability, it’s worth noting that, Iran aside, there is a lot of nuclear material in the world that is not adequately secured. There are about 2,300 tons of highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium in the world, and the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency follows up each year on 150 to 200 incidents of reported theft. Enough of these prove accurate that one of the agency’s senior officials says that some portion of this material is “still out of regulatory control.” 

All of these deserve at least a portion of the “worry time” that people are devoting to what the NSA is doing.

For example, officials in the former Soviet republic of Moldova seized a small amount of highly enriched uranium from smugglers in 2011; in 2006 and 2003, the same thing happened in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The worry is that thieves could sell this material to a group like al-Qaeda, which wants it to attempt a crude nuclear device or, more likely, to use it in a “dirty bomb” (in which such material is mixed with conventional explosives to cause a radioactive explosion).

3. Water Shortages

Speaking of contamination, one thing we take for granted in the U.S. is clean, safe drinking water, but much of the world doesn’t have that luxury. The OECD projects that by 2030, close to half the world’s people will have trouble ensuring supplies of clean, safe water. Meanwhile, water tables are gradually falling in several parts of the world, including the grain-growing regions of China and India. The likelihood that shortages will develop — it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain in developing countries — gives significance to the fact that nearly one-third of the earth’s surface consists of river basins shared by more than one country. And land that is not now considered strategic could become so in an era of water shortage; the Tibetan plateau is one such area because the headwaters of seven major rivers are there, including the Yangtze, Mekong, Ganges and Irrawaddy. So something that today seems unlikely — water as a source of conflict — could become a reality over the next several decades. 

4. Population Pressures

One thing not in short supply on our planet is people. The earth’s population not long ago passed the 7 billion mark, and demographers tell us that it will hit 10 billion by 2050. The recent spurt of growth was in parts of the world ill-prepared to deal with the resulting pressures — Africa, the Middle East, parts of Southeast Asia — and projections are that the developed world will account for little more than 3 percent of the growth over the next four decades. Underlying this is a pronounced trend toward urbanization — 50 percent of the world already lives in cities — with this again being especially the case in developing regions. As we head toward an era of megacities, or those with more than 20 million people — from Lagos to Jakarta — strains are sure to develop as weak governments struggle to provide services. Among the things to watch for: increased ethnic and tribal strife, heavier migration to the developed world, and legions of unemployed youth ripe for recruitment by extremist movements. 

Crowd of pedestrians walking up and down a busy street in NYC in color.

Crowd of people

Source Corbis

5. Al-Qaeda Consolidating Territory

Finally, seized as we are with the conflict in Syria and the neutering of its chemical weapons capability, the trend there that could be most worrisome over the long term is happening a bit out of sight. This is the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group’s gradual consolidation of territory in the country’s northeast. This is occurring largely in and around the city of Raqqa and represents a long-cherished dream of Osama bin Ladin’s successor, Ayman Zawahiri, who has always argued that al-Qaeda needs territory to train and plan operations. The ability of Jabhat al-Nusra to hang on to this ground depends on many things — future fighting, the strength of moderate forces, and whether the West can organize successful negotiations in Geneva on the country’s future (recently postponed again). Syria’s future is truly incalculable, but if the al-Qaeda affiliate can keep what it has, it will almost certainly begin to plan operations outside of Syria, to include Western targets.

The foregoing is just a small sample of things not much in the news that hold the potential to change the way we navigate the larger global environment. Many other things could be on such a list — climate change, the chance of a global pandemic, and so on. All of these deserve at least a portion of the “worry time” that people are devoting to what the NSA is doing. 

We should also be deeply concerned about whether the steady stream of leaks is damaging the NSA’s capabilities, because few agencies are as important to gathering the intelligence needed to anticipate the consequences of the above trends — especially those involving cybersecurity, the proliferation of dangerous materials and al-Qaeda’s prospects.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).