In his justifiably famous book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, author Thomas Friedman coined the phrase of superempowered individual. Friedman was referring specifically to Osama bin Laden, who was able to use a combination of ideological appeal, mass communications and modern technology to perpetrate violence on a geographic and physical scale once reserved for nation states alone. Add the possibility of access to weapons of mass destruction or the creation of a virus that could interfere with critical computer systems and the dividing line between superpower and superempowered individual is becoming blurred.
It can be argued that Osama bin Laden’s power was effectively countered by that of the United States. Yes, bin Laden has not been captured and on occasion transmits self-serving and somewhat pathetic videos. But Al Qaeda has been driven from Iraq and Afghanistan and its leaders in Pakistan and Yemen are being continuously hunted. Al Qaeda now relies on the likes of teenagers with explosives in their underwear to conduct their terrorist attacks. While not killed or captured bin Laden does not appear to have much of his superpowers left. After nine years of fighting the global war on terror, the U.S. military and intelligence community have gotten pretty good at combating the type of threat posed by Al Qaeda.
The first truly superempowered individual may well be Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. He is superempowered in part because he needs so little in the way of organization, resources or capabilities. By its very nature the Net or the Cloud abhors the need to occupy specific locations. Assange has no need for anything approximating territory, except perhaps for a safe house in the event Sweden ever comes up with a valid arrest warrant. The cost of storage and bandwidth is now so low as to be of negligible importance to all but the most inveterate movie or music collectors. Operating in cyberspace requires little specialized knowledge or materials, certainly as compared to bomb making.
While he lacks the power attributes of a nation state or even or a terrorist group like Al Qaeda, Assange knows how to play the game. Responding to attacks on his web site and to threats against him personally, Assange warned that in the event of a serious attack against either Wikileaks or himself personally he would release at an unpredicted time all the documents in his possession. In this manner he is practicing deterrence via the threat of massive retaliation. Assange also warned that he had one hundred mirror sites ready to release the documents if Wikileaks was taken down, thereby practicing a form of deterrence through objective denial.
One reason that Assange has power is because the United States has not yet figured out a way to deal with the threat he poses. Assange occupies an anomalous position vis-à-vis U.S. law being neither a U.S. citizen nor, technically, a spy. Given statements Assange has made regarding possession of documents from a major financial institution he might even qualify for protection under the U.S. whistleblower statute. He operates in cyberspace which, unlike Waziristan, the alleged current home of bin Laden, is relatively immune from attack. He is not seeking to make money from his activities, so interdicting his site does not pose a significant threat. In fact, while the U.S. government opposes his current activities it could feel differently if the documents Assange was leaking were generated by the regime in Teheran or by the mandarins in Beijing.
The U.S. is developing powerful cyber capabilities to deal with cyber threats posed by states and criminal or terrorist organizations. There is now an array of private companies large and small such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, General Dynamics and ManTech that possess an array of capabilities for traditional cyber offensive and defensive missions. Addressing the problem posed by superempowered individuals in cyberspace who have little to lose and not much more to gain in traditional terms will challenge even the best of these as well as the institutions of the U.S. government.
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