A nineteenth century sailor’s tale recalls a crystalline example of thinking outside the box. Modern day clearance holders find themselves more and more in such a world, where they too must not be restrained by old fashioned security methods unsuited for present threats.

Pirate Lessons in Threat Response

An American sea captain attempted to cross the incredibly dangerous Strait of Magellan off of Patagonia, in the extreme reaches of South America. He was advised by fellow seafarers that not only was the weather and sea against him, but ruthless pirates as well. One fellow captain counseled hiring locals to fight off the villains. Another advised waiting until a Chilean gunboat could tow his steamship through the perilous area. And then a wise Ecuadorean captain gave the American a bag of tacks, smiled, said, “This will take care of you,” and left.

Sure enough, underway and off the well-named Thieves’ Bay, the American saw through his spyglass pirates getting into canoes. He feared he could not outrun them. Night was falling, and he remembered the tacks. Placing them ‘business side up’ all over his deck, he went to bed. Sure enough, in the night, howls of pain alerted his crew to the danger, and the pirates were chased away. His advisor knew the threat, and advised accordingly.

Study All of the Threats

Today we hear that threats come not only from adversaries seeking to steal classified information from us, but to blow us up to make political statements. In the 9/11 massacre, not only were cleared personnel murdered and classified programs and safes destroyed, but the terrorists’ message was also sent far beyond the immediate victims.  How does an agency or company defend against these myriad types of threats? Or again, perhaps our adversaries want to steal politically sensitive information to sell to others for financial or partisan gain? Threats of many types abound, overlap, and are difficult to discern ahead of time. Patient study is where we should begin.

Study the Why Behind Former Attacks

We can study events leading up to that long ago September’s mass murder to learn how to perhaps prevent such in the future. Professional attacks seldom happen in a vacuum. We might begin by trying to understand why the terrorist who planned the first surprise attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993, chose that target. He did so because he wanted to kill as many Americans or Israelis as possible. After all, that terrorist’s philosophy believed the Americans and Israelis to be the cause of woe in the Middle East. As an engineer, he wanted to kill with the most efficiency in the most public of places. He actually researched targets of the American and Israeli governments, or Jewish centers, in New York. He finally settled on the Trade Center’s North Tower because it was the least defended. Other targets were simply too well protected.

Study the Details That Build Up to Attacks

The world was stunned when the V-1 Buzz Bomb and later, the V-2 ballistic missile rained death upon Europe. No one saw these perils coming. This is because the Versailles Treaty, designed to forever lock German military supremacy away, failed to anticipate forbidding yet unknown threats which the German General Staff could develop. The rocket as a military weapon was unknown at the time of the Versailles Treaty, and there was no prohibition against them. But not a half dozen years later, Wehrner von Braun and his colleagues were secretly brought into German military planning. They capitalized on the apparent lack of security protection against rocketry science worldwide, because no one thought of a military application. No one except for the plotting German military. The Germans were forced to think outside the box. Today, our adversaries claim they are without our wealth, and to defeat us, they must plan in ways we can’t even imagine.

See the whole Picture When Managing Threats

Stateless terrorists, secret military project coordinators, criminals, cyber activists, and a host of other dangerous elements try to benefit from our lack of simple awareness of what they can exploit. When we discuss protecting your technological, medical, or other classified projects, seeing these projects ‘holistically’ is always advised. What science affects your project? A breakthrough in heat resistance could affect aircraft endurance and speed. Nuclear energy afloat or in facilities under the sea are now contemplated. How will they impact our own developments in these critical systems?

A thoughtful Chinese writer, Liu Cixin, observed how systems, or as we might say classified projects, develop. They did not grow solitary, as in a vacuum, but as part of a larger whole. Technology for the armored tank arose from experiments with metals long used only for ships at sea. Consider. My company’s secret efforts are suitable for many things, some of which we really don’t understand yet. How am I trying to see this project in the larger world? What does the world know about this project, and how am I protecting against any threats? What threats are out there, and what future threats to my work can be intuited by developments around the world. To answer these questions, they must be raised. To be raised, they must first be thought. Who on your cleared staff is trying to see your project in the larger picture? As Lin Cixin said, “To effectively contain a civilization’s development and disarm it across such a long span of time, there is only one way: kill its science.”

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.