Meet the Microsoft Billionaire Who’s Trying to Reboot U.S. Counterterrorism

Nathan Myhrvold's a king of computer science, intellectual property, and extreme food. Can he teach Washington how to fight bad guys too?

Photo courtesy Intellectual Ventures
Photo courtesy Intellectual Ventures

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.

This is all profoundly strange. Not strange that Myhrvold — who is probably best known for talking about pistachio ice cream on The Colbert Report and for an unflattering profile of his company that aired on This American Life — would be chatting up spooks and congressional committee chiefs about his views. Washington is full of rich and important guys pushing their passion projects, and Myhrvold is a very rich and important guy.

What’s strange is that so many in the national security establishment are apparently surprised, even unnerved, by Myhrvold’s findings. As Myhrvold will be the first to tell you, the paper contains few new insights or warnings about how terrorists could use a biological weapon to kill millions of people. And it’s central "call to action," for the United States to shore up its woefully weak defenses against such an attack, have echoed around Washington in the 12 years since the 9/11 attacks. A lot of people with more official expertise on terrorism have already written these warnings. They show up repeatedly in the 9/11 Commission report. There are books on the subject. The Homeland Security Department was established in part to defend against this stuff.

The enthusiastic reception that Myhrvold is getting in Washington is a measure of how much this town seems to have forgotten about potentially catastrophic terrorism — and specifically about what security experts call "low-probability, high-impact" events like turning a virus into a weapon or detonating a small nuclear bomb.

"Big things actually matter a ridiculous amount, even if they’re not probable," Myhrvold told Foreign Policy. He points out that a bioterrorist attack is at least as likely as, and probably more likely than, a nuclear weapons strike was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States devoted enormous resources and manpower to managing that threat — and it still does — and there is nothing comparable to preventing bioterrorism.

Myhrvold says that not everyone he talks to is surprised by what he wrote. (And it should be said that the paper is well written, concise, and thoughtful, which helps explain why it’s catching on.) But when he does find out that an agency or department has a resident expert on bioterrorism or portable nukes, that expert is not working in the front office. He’s not part of the strategic discussion. Myhrvold’s broad complaint is that there’s no one person in charge of thinking about those unlikely but potentially awful doomsday scenarios.

It’s perhaps discouraging but not that surprising that it takes a relatively famous outsider to focus the mind on what countless white papers and task force reports have been saying for more than a decade. Call it the Myhrvold effect. But now that the entrepreneur has people’s attention, what does he intend to do with it?

That’s not so clear. Myhrvold said he has no intention to profit from his new influence. He’s not starting a consulting company. He’s not selling anti-terrorism devices. He says he wants to keep the conversation going. But he seemed genuinely surprised it has languished in recent years.

He’s not especially optimistic that much will change.

"[W]e will most likely continue to lumber along on our current path, addressing some issues and ignoring others," he writes in his paper. "Then the terrorists will launch the next attack. With luck, we will detect it in time to prevent a major disaster, but a more likely scenario is that a strategic-terror attack in the next decade or so will kill between 100,000 and one million Americans. Then we will surely get serious about strategic terrorism. Or we could start now."

This has been the thrust of the conversations that Myhrvold has been having with Washington heavies and policy leaders. Now, if they invite him to come back, we’ll really know they’re starting to take him seriously.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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