Are We Prepared for Cyberwarfare? Mary Beth Long Thinks Not

March 26, 2010 at 6:41 pm Leave a comment

Mary Beth Long also spoke earlier this month at Indiana University.

Partway through her speech Thursday night, Mary Beth Long ’85 Com, the first woman assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, paused and half-smiled at the audience. “If you’re not worried that the world is a dangerous place,” she said. “Stay tuned.”

Long had just spent about 20 minutes talking about terrorism, including how Al Qaida has been making up for lost ground by gaining a stronger foothold in Pakistan. I was already worried. But then she launched into the issue of nuclear proliferation, making the case that there is no possible way that Iran is enriching uranium for solely peaceful uses. And she wrapped up with a warning that the U.S. is unprepared to respond to cyberattacks, noting that no one is sure what would happen if, say, hackers shut down the computer system at Three Mile Island.

It wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it was thought-provoking—and that was the goal. Long was giving the 15th annual Mark Luchinsky Memorial Lecture, an event in honor of a University Scholar who died in 1995. Speakers are supposed to exemplify “intellectual honesty, personal integrity, and joy in learning,” and Long qualified on every count.

Her talk was titled “Terrorism, Nukes, and Cyberwarfare: Are We Prepared?” and it made clear how complicated the issues are. In about an hour, she touched on some international history, some politics, some geography, some technology, and some some cultural differences. I can’t possibly do justice to everything, but here are some of the key points I went home thinking about:

— She talked a lot about Iran, and especially its ties to Hezbollah. “You hear a lot about the Taliban and Al Qaida, but Hezbollah, I believe, is one of the overlooked but most dangerous terrorist groups we need to look at right now.”

— Among the big challenges for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Long said, is needing to clear IEDs away from schools built by coalition forces. Yes, the insurgents are targeting schools. “They lay them during the lunch hour,” she said, to target students, teachers, and aid workers.

— She painted a vivid picture of the problems that enemies of the United States could cause by going after our computer systems. Electrical grids, wastewater treatment facilities, mass transit, ports—if their computer systems were compromised, chaos would ensue. The U.S. needs to do a better job, she says, of organizing information and preparing for such an attack.

Long, who left government in 2008 and is now a senior vice president at NeurallQ Goverment Services Inc., loosened up a little at the end, during the Q-and-A.

Asked for her role models, her first answer, which she labeled “a little flip,” was Wonder Woman. (She didn’t need to apologize; Wonder Woman has a great history as a role model.) She told a great story about wearing “Wonder Woman” bracelets to a meeting in the Situation Room at the White House, and how surprised she was when Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, recognized them. “You know what Wonder Woman bracelets are?” she asked.

The final question came from Christian Brady, dean of the Schreyer Honors College, who asked what the title would be of a movie of her life, and who would play the starting role. Long laughed and said that she and her staff had actually kicked around such questions, and there was only one answer: Angelina Jolie.

That got a big laugh, but as far as I know, Angelina hasn’t completed the CIA’s clandestine operations in dangerous areas course or paramilitary training, both of which Long has done, and she hasn’t won awards for her roles in covert action, as Long has. Sometimes, real life is just more compelling than the movies.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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