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Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear Diner.com and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

  • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
  • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
  • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
  • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.

21 Responses to “Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold”

  1. Scott Says:

    Good post, Cheryl.  I worked on a database of stolen nuclear materials incidents for the Matthew Ridgway Center at the University of Pittsburgh and was amazed to find that nearly all of the incidents were of materials that can’t be used to make a bomb, and that the people doing the stealing were rank amateurs (some died of radiation poisoning within days!).  I haven’t worried much about nuclear terrorism since.

  2. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Interesting post.  Methinks  you don’t think much of John Robb’s ideas, either. Am I correct?

  3. seydlitz89 Says:

    Nice take down of Myhrvold . . . He seems to be attempting to get on the War on Terror showboat before it sinks . . . 

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Scott: That is pretty much my reading. I would add that many of the incidents are sting operations by government agents who let it be known they’re looking to buy materials. So we at Nuclear Diner keep wondering if there is anything remotely like a market, or if it’s mostly opportunists responding to those government agents. 
    Nate: I haven’t kept current with what Robb has been writing.
    seydlitz89: Thanks. 

  5. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Myhrvold had one historic achievement: he led the effort to centralize and highly fund a re-organization of the functionality offered by Microsoft’s different operating systems (Windows 3.x and Windows NT at the time) behind a single programming interface to prevent fragmentation of Microsoft’s software engineering platform. This was key to the high tide of Microsoft’s monopolistic tyranny (1995-2006). Like M$ co-founders Paul Gardener Allen (may his bones be crushed) and William Henry Gates III (may his bones be pureed), Myhrvold has done little else since except terrorize targets of his caprice with a dangerous dilettantism fueled by too much rentier capital and too little sense.


  6. carl Says:

    Lynn C. Rees:

    That last sentence wax one artful putdown. I’m officially jealous.

  7. Dallas Says:

    IMHO, if terrorists *could* have acquired, maintained, and detonated a nuke anywhere, they would have already done it by now. Or we would have heard of some Intelligence organization thwarting said plot.

  8. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Dallas, agree.

  9. Grurray Says:

    “Myhrvold had one historic achievement”
    He’s also got another one – monetizing, securitizing, and trading patents. Seems he really likes centralization.
    It’s difficult to find out what specifically is in their portfolio, but it looks like a lot of biotech which might explain his interest in bioterroism. He says profit isn’t his intention, but he apparently has hundreds of shell corporations spread around all over the world doing his IP business. It’s not a stretch to imagine one of them helping out in some way.

  10. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Myhrvold didn’t invent patent trollery. He merely pursued it with a manic fanaticism unnaturally amplified by monopoly dollars.

  11. Michael Crocker Says:

    Just what are people’s experiences of job advancement in the security
    field? I would sooner or later like to turn out
    working in the police force and I’m thinking whether I could simply go right into that or check the waters with something less intense.
    Has anybody started out in basic security and ended
    up working with the authorities?

  12. larrydunbar Says:

    “Myhrvold had one historic achievement: he led the effort to centralize and highly fund a re-organization of the functionality offered by Microsoft’s different operating systems (Windows 3.x and Windows NT at the time) behind a single programming interface to prevent fragmentation of Microsoft’s software engineering platform. ”

    If I am quoting TDAXP correctly, most of Microsoft’s workforce is Asian, so does it really matter to the user (assuming they are mostly American) how the organization is structured? It seems to me this is an Asian problem, if it is a problem at all.

  13. Grurray Says:

    Lynn,   That’s what I mean. Not only did he raise the practice to unprecedented levels, but
    you could argue that his patent trollery is part of the reason why the innovation economy (the startups, entrepreneurships, the early adopters, the engines of growth) has been staying afloat over the past decade or so.
    By some measures (albeit controversial) expounded by Tyler Cowen, Robert J. Gordon, etc, we’ve hit a point of diminishing returns on innovations per capita. Whether you agree or not, there’s no denying that things fundamentally changed in a way they haven’t in a long time. 
    At the same time, patents are up, way up. The introduction of middle men and a de facto exchange seems to have created an invention industry that has elevated it while the rest of the economy lags.
    Now you could also argue that this in an unnatural bubble-type situation that doesn’t create any real value and is consistent with the rest of the centralized hokum occurring in other financial sectors that never seen to end well, but, as Larry points out, if they succeed in exporting technological unemployment to Asia it could be just another in a long line of bullets dodged.

  14. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    It’s easier to plunder and gamble than create and produce. After the Dutch established the VOC in 1602 as the first mature financial platform, the first mature secondary financial market soon arose. Equities, loans, futures, and options quickly emerged in a recognizable form. No other fundamental type of security has emerged since. Everything else is (truth in advertising here) derivative of the others.


    Financial markets have always been bipolar: at best, they efficiently allocate patronage to patron and money with producer. At worst, they are a casino made all the more dangerous by 40 page prospectuses that obscure the spin of the roulette wheels. As the great value investor Benjamin Graham observed, in the short run the markets are a voting machine but in the long run they are a weighing machine. The Dutch Republic set the pattern: they started off investing in productive innovation. They ended in extractive gambling where a desperate search for yield led them to make risky speculative loans to junk bond salesmen like this guy at 6% interest. There are economists who dispute this but then we have a robust secondary market in economists at the moment: if you have a dollar, they have a supportive analysis.


    The Founding Fathers, even Hamilton despite his excesses, understood that productive capitalism required a focused financial sector, its focus maintained by healthy and frequent prods with a bayonet if necessary. Banks were subject to draconian state and local laws, especially after 1837. The Republican Party expanded Federal power after 1860 partially to free rentiers from local control: the Fourteenth Amendment grants equal protection under law to all of your friends, including the imaginary ones. This led to a confusion between markets, business, and financial exchanges that destroyed the Republican Party in 1929-1932.


    Draconian arbitrary laws came back down and were byzantine enough that they made financial markets remarkably inefficient and balkanized, which is always the best way to get efficient financial markets. Starting in the 1970s, a more addled breed of financial economists reemerged and set about deregulating the gaming industry. The result was so inevitable only an economist would be surprised: since rolling dice is easier than building business, a black hole soon developed on Wall Street that sucked resources and, more importantly, attention from harder things. As with past financial eruptions, the easily securitized profits were commoditized early, the culminating point of the offensive rolled past, and the mad scramble was on to securitize everything that wasn’t nailed down.


    The nature of markets is obscure to many people. Over time, with some ebbs and flows, the pie can expand and the rising tide can lift all boats. This is the weighing machine aspect of markets. However, in the short term, it can be a zero-sum game where people fight to the death over the visible quail in the hand rather than the elusive two in the bush. This is the voting machine aspect of markets. The desperate attempts to securitize everything and transform it into a liquid rentier cash flow we see now are characteristic of eras when asabiya has declined and the safeties have been pulled off society in the name of elite profiteering and shallow theorizing. The sorts of profiteering Mark and Diane Ravich highlight in the primary education sector are aspects of this broader race to the bottom. You don’t see innovation: you see lots of going sideways. For amusement, notice how many of your neighbors are overprogramming their children as they unconsciously weaponize them to better compete in the social arms race. The logic of the arms race is out in full force.


    In this environment, Myhrvold is merely an overactive symptom rather than an integral part of the underlying pathology. He is just as reliable a marker of a market reaching its top for me in “intellectual property” as he is for Cheryl in “nuclear powered terrorism”. Rent seeking Social entrepreneurship by former Microsofties is the new Trophy Wife Metric.


    We’re coming to the end of two bubbles: the largest is the continued closing of the American frontier and the smallest is the end of our post-WWI peace dividend. The United States hasn’t faced peer economic competitors since 1914 and near peer economic centers of gravity since 1945. This is one element of the current slowdown. Another is this notion of intellectual property. The United States through much of the nineteenth century was able to use one of the greatest economic strategies of all time: rampant theft of foreign innovations. Go back and watch Dickens howl over how pirated editions of his works were printed by American publishers without paying Dickens a cent. Nowadays, the efficiency of such theft is stifled by too much government regulation, including the patent system. Not a good thing for a redeveloping nation like the United States.


    Does this mean the end of American exceptionalism? No. But we need to relearn how to think like an exceptional challenger and not as an unexceptional fat incumbent.


    Good luck with that.

  15. T. Greer Says:

    Another comment that strongly deserves its own post.

  16. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    T. Greer,
    Whole-heartedly concur. And let’s not forget the Big Education bubble, Lynn.. 

  17. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Hi Scott


    Yup. Our current education system produces row boats at LCS prices, only with less punch and less survivability. You know you’ve hit education rock bottom when the wannabe rentiers it churns out like Myhrvold can’t even write a passable scare piece on crazy furners with nukes. That’s a low bar to clear.

  18. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    One of the things that struck me about the Myhrvold essay is that it’s devoid of references of any kind. Sure, it’s not the kind of thing you necessarily put numbered, academic references into, but no “as John Bolton has said” or “According to an IAEA study”? It looks to me like the whole thing is what Myhrvold has gleaned from the news and maybe a few magazine articles. 

  19. Grurray Says:

    I can’t wait for the follow up.
    ” Social entrepreneurship by former Microsofties is the new trophy wife metric”
    Hilarious and so true.

  20. larrydunbar Says:

    ” understood that productive capitalism required a focused financial sector,”

    They also understood that that the focused financial sector didn’t have to be in the US, right? I mean it wouldn’t have been in their thoughts that the focused financial sector had to be in the US, at least they wouldn’t have been thinking that it was something to “fight” over. Or is that what you are suggesting: that the location of the financial sector is something they would have gone to war over? Please explain. 

  21. larrydunbar Says:

    “Yup. Our current education system produces row boats at LCS prices, only with less punch and less survivability.”

    So how was it that you were able to isolate yourself from the system? Did your orientation somehow enable you to subvert the system, and the resources available from that subversion give you a better position from which to act? If so, it doesn’t seem to me that, while you can present the options available, from how you have isolated yourself (and I am only assuming you have), like Mitt, you are hardly able to speak for most, if any, Americans. From your position they, of the American educational system, must look like a bunch of zombies (oars in the water, but no Captain 🙂 Or did you actually go through the American Public Education system? Which then I must say produced some fine young men.

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