Homeland Security

Shane Harris on Nathan Myhrvold's Paper

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, September 20, 2013, 6:48 AM

Over at Foreign Policy, Shane Harris has a story about Nathan Myhrvold's Lawfare Research Paper Series paper: "Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action." Along the way, it also contains some nice words about Lawfare. It opens:

Add to Nathan Myhrvold's already eclectic résumé---which includes ex-chief technology officer of Microsoft, co-founder of one of the world's largest patent-holding firms, and author of a $625 cookbook---a new credit: terrorism expert.

Myhrvold, a famous autodidact, recently published a 33-page paper that he rousingly calls, "Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action." The core of his argument is easy enough to understand, and probably true: The United States is more focused on stopping a guy who blows up an airplane and kills 300 people than on a guy who intentionally spreads smallpox and kills 300,000.

"In my estimation, the U.S. government, although well-meaning, is unable to protect us from the greatest threats we face," Myhrvold writes. "[M]odern technology can provide small groups of people with much greater lethality than ever before. We now have to worry that private parties might gain access to weapons that are as destructive as -- or possibly even more destructive than -- those held by any nation-state."

Myhrvold to Washington: National security … you're doin' it wrong.

The paper is accessible to a layman, which is what Myhrvold was when he started thinking about the strategic aspects of terrorism not long after the 9/11 attacks. He wrote the piece in his spare time---apparently he does have some---and it was mostly finished in 2006. Myhrvold had no intention of publishing it until recently, when he met Benjamin Wittes, the editor of the influential national security and legal site Lawfare. Wittes thought that parts of the paper accurately described the threat posed by small actors with big weapons, and he decided that Myhrvold's analysis deserved a wider audience. Lawfare published the paper in July.

Since then, the document has made the rounds. It has been discussed in military and intelligence circles. Law professors are reading it and talking about it at symposia. Members of Congress and their staffs have reviewed Myhrvold's findings. Chances are that if you ask a national security expert, he either has read the paper or will tell you he plans to right away. As these kinds of things go in wonkland, Myhrvold's paper has buzz.

And last week, Myhrvold started making the rounds too. He was in Washington meeting with senior officials in the intelligence agencies and committee members and staff on Capitol Hill. He was hesitant to tell Foreign Policy, when we sat down for a chat, precisely whom he has been talking to. But he was clear that it was a large number. And they weren't all meetings that Myhrvold had set up. A lot of people in government were calling him, asking if he'd stop by to talk about the paper and how he thinks the United States could improve its security policy.

Myhrvold, for those who missed it, was also my guest on the most recent Lawfare Podcast.