DHS Uses Actual Science-Fiction Writers to Help Develop Movie-Plot Threats

At least they're honest about it this time.

Posted on June 1, 2007 at 6:26 AM • 42 Comments

Comments

bobJune 1, 2007 6:45 AM

Niven & Pournelle co authored "Footfall" a SciFi novel in which the US government harnesses teams of science fiction writers to develop ways to fight a technologically superior race intent on taking over the earth.

wiredogJune 1, 2007 7:12 AM

I saw this at slashdot, and saw the reactions to it. Why do people find it so humorous? No one thinks novelists can come up with good ideas of what threats are plausible, and what defenses might be useful?

Has no one read "Debt of Honor" by Clancy?

Oh, and Pournelle, for one, is no fan of DHS, TSA, and the other security measures that have been taken since 9/11.

TarkeelJune 1, 2007 7:33 AM

@Wiredog: "Debt of Honor" isn't an excellentchoice of example, as (Spoiler Warning) Clancy misses the obvious peaceful solution to the economic struggles: Japan could alter it's own import restrictions, thus making the mirroring not-so-useful.

I do agree that hiring good (and they seemed to have been properly vetted) SciFi writers to brainstorm what-ifs are a good idea. How they react to them is another matter though, but it IS after all their job to have plans for every contingency.

PaeniteoJune 1, 2007 8:10 AM

Bruce, did you already give them the URLs of your movie-plot contests?

Carlo GrazianiJune 1, 2007 9:02 AM

Judging from "Footfall", Pournelle and Niven are already legends in their own minds. I guess they've gotten the government to buy into the legend.

FPJune 1, 2007 9:22 AM

Go to any bookstore, and you will find numerous examples of more or less credible "movie plot" novels where resourceful and motivated attackers spread fear and bring down the hardest targets.

The problem is that they are too specific. Put 100 novelists in a room, and they can come up with at least 100 scenarios for Bruce's movie-plot contests. If each scenario costs, on average, $1 million to prevent, we can spend $100 million to defend against them all.

But if, after the fact, you invite the same 100 writers and present them with our accomplishments, they will have no problem coming up with 100 more plausible scenarios that your just-implemented defenses don't work against. Where do we stop?

Bruce's point is that we can make better use of our money than to throw it at dime-a-dozen movie-plot threats.

But then there is the public that reads Clancy's "The Sum Of All Fears" and demands that we protect them from it.

JosephJune 1, 2007 9:35 AM

Granted, using these guys to think of movie-plot attack scenarios is pretty crazy. But if you read the USA Today article, the group was originally organized 15 years ago to address the problem of post-nuclear society. I think that science fiction writers could be very usefull in that scenario, where they are analyzing the changes that could occur to society following a devastating nuclear attack.

In other words, coming up with ways terrorists might attack us is not useful, but they could do a great job analyzing what effect that might have on future society.

n30June 1, 2007 9:43 AM

@Tarkeel: I can't know for sure but I think wiredog's point in mentioning "Debt of Honor" is that Clancy wrote a book in which [spoiler warning] a commercial airline pilot kills his co-pilot with a knife he got in an airport restaurant and then flies his 747 into the Capitol Building. This book came out in 1994. So there's at least one example of a fiction author seeing a potential attack before the gov't did. Not that this necessarily justifies consulting sci-fi writers for help w/ DHS. And I realize that concentrating on specific attacks isn't good security. I'm just saying...

averyJune 1, 2007 10:10 AM

Using n30's summary of "Debt of Honor" as given, let's say we took that plot at devised defenses against it - would they have prevented the September 11th attacks? With the exception of deploying surface to air missles all over hell and gone (what could go wrong) everything I can think of that would help prevent the "Debt of Honor" plot is exactly what we've undone in response to September 11th. Armed pilots in sealed cockpits, etc.

If I want possible terrorist plots from a science fiction author I'll reread "Stand on Zanzibar".

Fred PJune 1, 2007 10:13 AM

"No one thinks novelists can come up with good ideas of what threats are plausible, and what defenses might be useful?"

I'm certain that some are. However, making plausible threats and useful defenses against those threats isn't the job of virtually any SF author.

I mean, Greg Bear, as an example, has created various plots to innovatively destroy a planet (or in some cases, just all or most of the life on that planet). While several of these books make for good reading, we simply don't have the capacity to defend against a number of his plots, and most, if not all of them are scientifically rather implausible.

Stephen DedalusJune 1, 2007 10:25 AM

There is potential utility in a free market for movie plots only insofar as they can reliably identify shared points of potential failure. Then again, this is the same sort of thing that formal threat assessments are designed to identify. You still need eggheads, just a different variety :) The argument that creative types will trump analytic types in attempting to identify novel threats is tempting, but the creative output should be subjected to the same analytical process as that for risks and benefits that are already known.

This should still be a minimal proportion of resource expenditure. Dress rehearsals that address common threats are just more useful than scripts of sensational threats. They just don't play as well in press releases.

supersnailJune 1, 2007 10:26 AM

The problem is that some people are highly motivated to commit terrorist acts.
Such highly motivated individuals will find a way around any defenses you care to put up.

Look at the sitation from a less emotive angle.
Some individuals are highly motiviated to make money.
They know they can make lots of money smuggling cocaine.
So they smuggle cocaine and amke lots of money.
Various governements spend billions trying to stop them smuggling cocaine. There is even an official "War on Drugs".
The net result is that these highly motivated indviduals continue to import TONs of cocaine.
Admitedly the Coast Guard, Customs, DEA are well equiped and well trained so they catch lots of drug smugglers - the net effect though is classic Darwinism - only the best drug smugglers survive.

If you cannot win the "War on Drugs" what chance have you with the "War on Terrorism"?

Reducing the motivation of the terrorists is probably the most effective method, but, this is a hard and long term solution. You cannot go back and un-bomb a family in Bagdad. You cannot get someone to forget a childhood spent in a refugee camp which came under regular military attack.
All you can do is try and break the cycle of revenge - and that is very hard -- and it is one of only two lasting solutions. The other lasting solution is genocide.
Take your pick.

Michael AshJune 1, 2007 10:27 AM

All the talk about Debt of Honor is quite amusing. Using airplanes to destroy stuff by crashing into them is very old, at least sixty-some years. Using civilian airliners instead of military aircraft is a minor innovation. Clancy didn't come up with anything interesting here.

The primary innovation of the 9/11 attackers was their coordination and their thriftiness. Figuring out how to use four airplanes at once without having to recruit four airline pilots was brilliant. But figuring out the method of the attack just takes watching some WWII movies.

John DaviesJune 1, 2007 10:30 AM

No Arthur C Clarke? I would have though that he'd be a lot more insightful than that lot.

( Yes, OK, living on this side of the Atlantic I am biased! )

derfJune 1, 2007 10:37 AM

If they're using science fiction writers for this, why not in all parts of government? It might explain Britains' turning to George Orwell's roadmap for the perfect society.

I'm doubleplus bellyfeel goodthinkful about this.

AlanJune 1, 2007 11:22 AM

It sounds better than who they use now.

The current terror warnings make much more sense if you start them with "Dude... Wouldn't it be cool if..." and then the sound of someone toking on a bong.

I do have some argument with the authors they chose. They seem to be from the more authoritarian and/or "corporate Libretarian" side of the genre. It would have been more interesting to have someone like Cory Doctrow in the room.

bzelbobJune 1, 2007 11:57 AM

The Sci-Fi writers will definitely be able to think of many different attacks; but will their imaginations actually yield focused improvements in security?
I think one of the weaknesses of thinking of all sorts of attacks or a "movie plot" type thing is that it is not limited to attacking any specific target or place.

An interesting thing that Bruce could do next year for the movie plot thing is to focus it by announcing a specific target to be attacked. People could then go off and generate their ideas. What this would hopefully lead to is ideas for structured improvement in the security of a single target. (Maybe that could also be part of a contest - Invent a simple, cheap effective defense for a given target that has not been done before.)

Take for example what Bruce has said about making the cockpit door stronger. I think this is exactly the type of thing that would emerge from analyzing all specific attacks of an airplane against the amount of time, energy and money required to defend against all these threats.

SteightonJune 1, 2007 12:10 PM

"No one thinks novelists can come up with good ideas of what threats are plausible, and what defenses might be useful?"

Of course a good set of creative minds can come up with all kinds of scenarios for realistic terrorist attacks. I think, however, the point here is that the government is spending it's money trying to bet that a group of novelists will be more creative than a potential terrorist... that a potential terrorist couldn't possibly come up with something that these novelists didn't already think of.

Bruce has said before, and I happen to agree, that our money is better spent improving intelligence operations. Rather than brain-storming about what a terrorist *might* do, let's expend some real effort in figuring out what they *are* doing!

JohnJune 1, 2007 12:16 PM

You know, I just read "the Hot Zone". What a great book.

Too bad some retard with TB just flew into the US, despite border control flags...

No matter what defenses we come up with, if we can't even do the basic things we're required to do for security, we have no hope at doing the complex things.

Carlo GrazianiJune 1, 2007 12:31 PM

Richard Clarke would be better-qualified, but for some reason he wasn't invited.

Personally, I think they'd be using the money about as well if they brought in a few chick-lit authors, plus maybe some of the people who write " For Dummies".

Yeah, "Terrorist Plot Anticipation And Prevention For Dummies" would be cool [sound of bong burbling...]

zoneJune 1, 2007 1:26 PM

I figured that meeting would show up here.

That group has much better credentials to be heard as "Security Experts" than most. Get people with MDs and multiple PHDs that have also extensive knowledge of history, military, science and survival and you will get some good stuff.

TuxGirlJune 1, 2007 1:56 PM

Too bad they don't look at sci-fi books like 1984 when trying to determine their policy... That book is starting to feel way too close for comfort these days...

X the UnknownJune 1, 2007 2:03 PM

"Earth Abides" (George R. Stewart, 1949) is still my favorite for Movie-Plot threats. Very plausible, and (as presented) almost inevitable. No human terrorists required (although they could deliberately try to trigger a global pandemic). The basic idea is that, with the speed of modern transportation and the interconnectedness of the world's civilizations, a killer disease with the right gestation profile could be everywhere before anyone even thought to do something about it.

We've already seen that it's true = AIDS, with its very long initial "contagious dormancy" has spread irresistably throughout the world. Fortunately, it's not an airborne disease, like the Flu.

While in some sense "Movie Plot", this is also a demonstrably real threat that our governments have done little to prevent. Of course, I'm not sure what they could do, without unacceptably draconian invasive travel restrictions (like, getting a blood-test and full-spectrum disease workup before being allowed out of or into the country).

Old GuyJune 1, 2007 3:42 PM

Weren't Niven et al also part of the group of SF writers who urged Ronald Reagan to pursue SDO?

AnonymousJune 1, 2007 3:43 PM

What about hiring some conspiracy theorists to help with the FUD and PR aspects?

averrosJune 1, 2007 4:04 PM

Actually, what is needed is a group of primatologists, to advise on body language most conductive to conveying fear to the masses. Dramatic voice on TV, concerned faces of pundits and presenters, chimp-like mimics of the Commander in Chief - a lot of it is already in being used, why not go for the really scientific approach? Fear is absolutely the best way to short-circuit reasoning, better than pot or acid, or better even than alcohol.

After all, the only purpose these movie plot threat scenarios serve is to scare the populace even more, so they'll be less inclined to think for themselves. And as long as they're not thinking, their pockets are wide open for picking.

Which is what DHS (and the rest of the Feds) are about. It is truly amazing that a lot of people, even in this forum, still think that this organization's goal is to improve security.

ThomasJune 1, 2007 4:51 PM

Well, at least someone is finally taking SciFi seriously.


Oh, wait....

(as a side note, what about other genres? Given the choice between defending against flesh-eating aliens and brain-eating zombies, I vote for zombies!!)

NeighborcatJune 1, 2007 5:39 PM

AAAAHHHHHhhhh! So many frequent readers of Mr. Schneier's work missing the point! It's not a matter of selecting the right person or people to think of possible threats! It's the entire paradigm that's flawed, not the choice of prognosticator.

The point is to allocate resources towards protection that is not threat specific, that fails softly, and with warning.

Is it just me. or am I taking this thread too seriously?

AnonymousJune 2, 2007 1:11 AM

@Neighborcat
"""The point is to allocate resources towards protection that is not threat specific,"""

So you mean we need something that protects against both aliens AND zombies?

You know, you might be on to something there...

SkippernJune 3, 2007 7:35 AM

So sci-fi writers are now garantied income, if their new story isn't good enough to be published as film or book, the american government can buy it and use it as a terror-plot-scenario.

If I was a sci-fi writer I would support this to the full.

thought policeJuly 19, 2008 10:19 PM

The bank problems are the same as the Enron problems. You only need to shut people down, the computers can be left running after the building is empty. That way when you liquidate you can show the buyers how well they are working. Any bank worth the deposits has secure vaults. You can run a bank with no computers and have a more secure bank. I know that sounds impossible in an era of disappearing paper.

AnonymousJuly 19, 2008 10:28 PM

People aren't consolidating debt. That ship sailed. People are into massive default on loans into the billions. The computers made borrowing easier without making repaying the loans easier. A computer company consumes cash faster than it produces cash. It's as simple as the dotcom crash. Remember that. Some chickenshit pop website with no income was going to be worth $2 billion. Suckers.

AnonymousJuly 19, 2008 10:37 PM

Dotcom Crash
When: March 11, 2000 to October 9, 2002
Where: Silicon Valley (for the most part)

Percentage Lost From Peak to Bottom: The Nasdaq Composite lost 78% of its value as it fell from 5046.86 to 1114.11.

Sponsored by those who sponsored Google and a million other jacks in the search box to make you feel better about being morons and social retard geeks.

ModeratorJuly 21, 2008 1:51 PM

Thought Police/Anonymous, you're posting large numbers of comments to this blog under more than one pseudonym, sometimes with no discernible connection to the topic. If you want a place to post your random thoughts, you need to get your own blog. If you want to continue commenting here, please pick one name, and make sure you are participating in the conversation rather than hijacking it.

Also, no more namecalling, please.

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