The Earthling

Remote-Control Assassination 

Last month President Clinton made a decision about the global positioning satellite system that leaves Americans more vulnerable to terrorist attack. Why haven’t you heard about this? Who knows. Maybe because the people who are supposed to worry about such threats—Pentagon planners, Washington think tankers, journalists—were focusing on a different national security issue: whether to build a missile-defense system. In any event, there is a link between the two issues: Both Clinton’s GPS decision and the missile-defense plan reflect a rapidly obsolescing view of the kinds of dangers America faces.

The upshot of Clinton’s GPS decision is that everyone can now have something formerly available only to the American military: highly precise use of the global positioning system. Previously, the type of GPS device you could use in your car or boat was much less accurate than the Pentagon’s version, because the Pentagon’s version could tap into a special encrypted channel. So if, say, you wanted to take the GPS device from your car or boat and use it to guide a missile, the smallest thing you could reliably hit would be a football field. Now that Clinton has opened the high-fidelity channel to civilian use, your missile will be able to reliably hit a tennis court.

F ootball field, tennis court—what’s the difference? If you’re talking about nuclear-tipped missiles launched by none at all. But what if you’re talking about non-nuclear missiles launched by terrorists? Then the difference is between hitting a suburban block and hitting a suburban home. Thanks to Clinton’s decision, terrorists can use GPS, combined with conventional explosives or chemical weapons, to strike particular people—Cabinet members, industrialists, entertainers who champion the wrong political cause, and so on. Remote-control assassination is now feasible.

And these terrorists won’t have to be very high-tech, because cruise-missile technology isn’t necessary. Already, hobbyists have used a GPS device to guide a commercially available, model-type airplane—weighing 29 pounds, with a 9-foot wingspan—across the Atlantic Ocean.

I’m not saying Clinton’s decision was necessarily wrong. A hi-fi GPS will probably save lives by getting rescue workers to the scene of trouble faster. And it will help otherwise lost motorists, hikers, and so on. Still, it will also empower the Osama Bin Ladens and Aum Shinrikyos and Timothy McVeighs of the world. Given this downside, the fact that there was no public debate whatsoever about whether the good outweighs the bad suggests that we aren’t thinking through these national security issues very clearly.

Just look at the government’s stated rationale for the GPS policy change. The Pentagon says it approved the change because it has figured out how to selectively jam the hi-fi channel for particular parts of the world during a crisis. That’s fine if all we have to worry about is old-fashioned threats, such as a geographically distinct enemy—a state—engaged in ongoing hostilities. But in fact we have to worry about terrorists who strike in times of peace—and, for that matter, about state leaders, such as Saddam Hussein, who sponsor terrorist attacks launched from somewhere other than their soil. It won’t help to jam signals in Iraq if Saddam’s proxies are launching their model airplane from a parking lot in New Jersey.

The significance of attack-by-proxy continues to elude missile-defense advocates. For some reason they think that, if a missile-defense system did manage to neuter some dictator’s nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles (big if), it wouldn’t occur to him to just smuggle an atomic bomb in a suitcase via boat or truck or car. Needless to say, these missile-defense boosters don’t go further and ask: Wait a second, given this old-fashioned option, why would the dictator have wanted to send the nuke by ballistic missile in the first place? After all, that approach, by disclosing his identity, has the unattractive side effect of exposing him to massive retaliation!

The GPS issue also spotlights a second hole in the pro-missile-defense argument: cruise missiles. A nuclear-tipped cruise missile would, like a suitcase bomb, render a missile-defense system roughly as effective as the Maginot line. Suppose we grant missile-defense advocates the dubious premise that somewhere out there is a “rogue” dictator seriously contemplating a ballistic-missile attack against the United States. Don’t you think that, if the Unites States embarks on its five-year missile-defense deployment, this dictator might shift resources from building ballistic missiles to building or obtaining cruise missiles? And a cruise missile—launched, say, from a boat off the American coast—would share the advantage of a suitcase-bomb: no return address, hence less chance of nuclear retaliation. (And some cruise missiles don’t need either kind of GPS for guidance.)

If you confront missile-defense advocates with the suitcase-bomb and cruise-missile scenarios, they usually miss the point. An article in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs accurately characterized their typical reply: “[I]t makes no sense to throw in the towel simply because missile defenses are not a panacea.” But the point isn’t that missile defense won’t accomplish everything. The point is that it won’t accomplish anything. Any state or group with the resources to nuke the United States via ballistic missile will have the resources to nuke it via various other means—means that are actually, from its point of view, preferable to ballistic missiles even in the absence of missile defense.

Special redundant disclaimer section: I repeat: I’m not saying that the new hi-fi GPS is on balance a bad thing. In fact, in view of the upside (see above), I say give it a whirl and then, if some suburban ranch-style goes up in smoke as a result, reconsider. But I am saying that, given the acute sensitivity to risk that governs policy these days, you would expect the GPS decision to have been more widely discussed before implementation. Consider the policy that forces airline-ticket-counter staffs to ask those questions that dilute risk infinitesimally while eating up precious time and prompting countless travelers to tell lies in front of their children. (“But Mommy, what about when we were still in the house and the taxi driver had the suitcases outside?”) Surely a public that is so risk-averse as to tolerate this inconvenience would be interested in at least debating a policy that gives terrorists a whole new kind of weapon. That no one in Washington started such a debate suggests that few people in the policy establishment understood that the new GPS policy does give terrorists a new weapon. And this blind spot, I contend, reflects an outmoded mindset—the type of mindset that would countenance spending $60 billion on a missile-defense system that will do nothing to reduce the risk of nuclear attack, rather than spending it to combat the various new threats that technology is creating.