On red teaming

I have at various times and in various places participated in ‘red team’ exercises, where my job was to think about how to do damage to the United States of America. As I may have alluded to elsewhere, it is a surprisingly easy thing to do. The one unfortunate thing about living in a largely free society is that it is a very, very vulnerable society. It’s a bit weird and wonderful: we trust each other. And because we trust each other, things work. I stop for the Stop signs, you stop for the Stop signs. Not every country is like this; in fact I’m not sure there are many other countries like this. Kleptocracies abound, and it is really, really hard to pull back from a kleptocracy (indeed, it amazes me that our own “Robber Baron” era didn’t send us along a different path).


In any event, I don’t intend to dwell on how easy it is to thwack the US. What’s interesting is how different folks come to this. That is, the sociology of becoming an intellectual terrorist. Intellectual being the key word here; I don’t think anyone who’s played this game wants to actually hurt the US. It’s serious (but necessary) business, obviously, to think these thoughts in the right context. So it’s not the emotional commitment, it’s the mental wrangling that’s interesting.

You come to red teaming with a fresh mind, but it’s also an uneducated one. You think about what you would do to hurt people, many people. And the answers you come up with, if you’re an academic, are surprisingly … academic. They are not always ‘flying planes into buildings’ sorts of answers. They’re more the things you see the Evil Mad Scientist doing in a Bond movie.

Over time, practice makes perfect. Plots become simpler, easier. More realistic.

But, amusingly, we / I seldom arrive at the same answer as the actual terrorists. Personally, I think our answers are better. More bang for your buck. But our answers don’t serve the needs of the terrorists quite as well. The symbolism of taking out the Twin Towers versus the strategic impact of other targets. And thus perhaps we scientists are not quite doing our job. I think other folks probably do a better job, and that is reassuring. I’d hate to think we’re essentially defended against low-rent Dr. Evil knockoffs, but not against the real thing.


- originally posted on Friday, July 9th, 2010