Cyber Target?

Target Cyber_Command 1On the last day of 2010, a sanitation worker in Newark, Delaware, activated the hydraulics controls on his garbage truck, and the massive refuse container at the back raised up, tilted nearly 90 °and began disgorging its contents into the Cherry Island Landfill. As gulls wheeled overhead noisily announcing the newest delivery to their smorgasbord from hell, the detritus collected from a quiet neighborhood in New Castle spewed unceremoniously to the ground. Along with the usual collection of garbage and plastic, an American hero’s body precipitated into the filth. A day earlier, the remarkable life of John P. Wheeler III had come to an end. A couple weeks later, it seems, his story would also end, not with searing pain and a flash of light, the symptoms of the blunt force trauma that snapped the thread of his life. No, his story would merely fade from sight in much the same way the last dot of light fades from cathode ray-based T.V.s that were cutting-edge technology when his life began in a different December 66 years previous. Time, tide, and the cable news cycle pause for no man.

Stories of bodies found in landfills typically see little ink. One mention on the late-night news may be all such a victim might generate. A homeless vagrant who succumbs to hypothermia as he huddles in a dumpster in search of shelter from the storm that has been his life will be forgotten before the garbage surrounding him can be processed. Each night, the parade of casualties of the American dream parade across digital displays, great and small. No time to dwell; tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will provide new fodder for the mill. Still, Jack Wheeler haunts the dark corners of my mind. He deserved better.

Jack was somebody important; he was somebody special. Do you know what I mean when I say “special”? Perhaps his widow described him most accurately and affectionately when she said, “Jack was a bit Aspy.” She was referring to the eccentric way he could slip from hyper-focus on a concrete problem to near oblivion when picking up on even the most blatant social clues. To people in the community, the friends and families of people who, to some degree, fall under the rubric of Asperger’s Syndrome, that is all they need to know to understand the cocktail of idiosyncrasies that would make John simultaneously immensely lovable and intensely irritating to his friends, family, and coworkers. It is quite possible that these same traits would make him an easy mark for those who had decided that his presence on earth was no longer tolerable, but being a bit Aspy was not the only thing that made Jack special. He had lived the life of someone not limited by the expectations of others. It’s not that he didn’t care what other people might have thought; he just didn’t perceive the subtle clues that freeze others in fear of the derision or contempt of their fellow travelers. Neither did he seem to bask in contented self-satisfaction at accomplishing a goal others would readily accept as a lifetime accomplishment. Instead, he just continued to see problems and find solutions.

For example, it is hardly an exaggeration to say he was the moving force behind the Vietnam War Memorial on the mall in D.C. He was the chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and creator of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. While he may not have singlehandedly willed the memorial into being, his single-mindedness of purpose had sustained the project through all the thousands of bureaucratic nicks and cuts that felled other equally deserving projects. And so, it was accomplished, and it would be hard to say that this was his crowning achievement. Below is just a partial bucket list of this remarkable man.

  • Graduated within the top 5%of his 1966 class from the S. Military Academy at West Point
  • Fire Control Platoon Leader, Nike Nuclear Missile site; New Jersey
  • Harvard MBA
  • Yale Juris Doctor of Law
  • Unconfirmed (as all others) member of Skull and Bones
  • Special counsel to the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission
  • Chairman and chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving
  • Worked with the first President Bush to establish the Earth Conservation Corps
  • Staff Officer, Joint Staff; The Pentagon, Washington DC
  • One of our country’s first cyberwarriors

and the list goes on. Mr. Wheeler was never named “The Person Most Likely to End Up Dead in a Dumpster.” This is why it seems so strange that his murder remains unsolved to this day, despite the offer of a $25,000 reward.

The records show he died from blunt force trauma. The videos, captured by a Wilmington parking garage security camera, show a befuddled man carrying a single shoe, apparently lost in his own stomping ground, the neighborhoods where he lived and worked for years. Got a pet conspiracy theory? Jack’s story can be shoehorned into it. And once it is incorporated into any particular account, it will likely lay there unchallenged, unrefuted, and ignored, each version lacking sufficient corroborating evidence to make it stick.

Was he murdered by his neighbor, with whom he was reported to have had a conflict of the type more likely to result in a letter from the homeowner’s association than assassination? Was his death linked to mysterious bird deaths reported in Pines Bluff, Arkansas? Did his wife hire a hitman? Perhaps, Dick Cheney had him whacked. All these theories and more have been advanced, but it is unclear how many have been investigated by the FBI. We know that our top federal law enforcement agency has examined the details of Wheeler’s death, but that’s about as far as the story goes, so any conclusion seems almost as good as the next. The list of potential suspects seems almost unknowable, considering his line of work. Of the myriad of candidates, Miter Corp is the one potential adversary that doesn’t make sense to me.

Despite having a name right out of a cheap spy novel, and deep connections to the most clandestine elements of our federal security apparatus, Mitre Corp. was deleted from my list of suspects early on, even though they made it to the top of that list with a bullet. OK… a poor metaphor there, but Mitre seems to have everything needed to draw one’s suspicion.

Mitre does not try to hide what they do. Their home screen proudly announces,

“MITRE Corporation is a not-for-profit company that operates multiple federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs). We provide innovative, practical solutions for some of our nation’s most critical challenges in defense and intelligence, aviation, civil systems, homeland security, the judiciary, healthcare, and cybersecurity.”

On the other hand, their mere existence depends on nothing more critical than their ability to keep secrets. This is cooked into their job descriptions. FFRDCs are as intensely secretive as the missions that gave birth to them. If the Tizard Mission does not ring a bell with you, it was secret, but perhaps you have heard of the Manhattan Project. Both were super-secret research and development projects that, along with Ultra, provided the Allies with the technological edge which would eventually prove decisive in WWII. The success of these programs convinced military planners of the need to continue a systematic strategy to preserve our technological advantage over NATO’s perennial adversaries. According to the non-secure site,

“A Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) is an activity sponsored under a broad charter by a Government agency (or agencies) to perform, analyze, integrate, support, and/or manage basic or applied research and/or development, and that receives 70 percent or more of its financial support from the Government.”

Mitre Corp. operates multiple FFRDCs.

In plain English, Mitre operates about as deep as one can get in the bowels of the dreaded Military-Industrial Establishment. If anyone had the wherewithal to off poor Mr. Wheeler, they would. The thing is…as far as I can determine…Mitre would not seem to have a reasonable motive. And, if they did, they would not have bungled the job. They would not have allowed Wheeler to stumble around Wilmington, DE, like a drunk, wandering from the Amtrak station to a video-monitored parking garage and beyond, leaving a trail of evidence and providing uncountable opportunities for potential intervention. But that’s what happened. The path that eventually ended in a Newark dump begins not far from Mitre Corp, his last known employer/client.

His final trip started when he left Washington’s Union Station aboard an Amtrak train bound for Wilmington, Del. At the time, he was under contract to Mitre, and many surmised that he had visited them on the 28th. On their website, Mitre states that their D.C. offices are at McNally (Anacostia Naval Annex), 2743 Defense Blvd S.W. # 399, Washington, DC. You can’t miss it. It is directly across from the NCIS Naval Criminal Investigation Station. Interestingly, NCIS has the following mission statement,


The NCIS mission is to investigate and defeat criminal, terrorist, and foreign intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps—ashore, afloat, and in cyberspace” NCIS also has exclusive investigative jurisdiction within the DON for actual, potential, or suspected acts of espionage, terrorism, sabotage, assassination, or defection by naval personnel.” 

This is where things begin to get interesting. Is it reasonable to assume that Wheeler had been in D.C. to discuss an emerging cyber threat? His biography from  mentions that as a special presidential advisor, he was responsible for standing up Cyberspace Forces which have primary responsibility for our nation’s cyber defense, and is responsible for “executing cyberspace operations as directed.” The year 2010 was seminal in the history of cyber warfare.

In June of that year, journalist Brian Krebs blogged about a previously unknown cyber virus, which had apparently escaped into the wild. This virus was, in fact, a runaway cyber weapon jointly developed by the USA and Israel. It was initially targeted at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facilities; however, a coding error was introduced during a software update that disabled the self-limiting function that had been designed into the weapon. Rather than self-destruct, the weapon self-replicated. As news of this virus spread throughout the cyber community, one thing became apparent. The USA was the first country to be identified as using an offensive cyber weapon.

While Iran was the proximate target of this attack, two other countries would consider our actions as the beginning of a secret cyber war. The centrifuges at Nantanz are variations of a Pakistani design, so the Paks would most certainly see a successful attack on Iran as a significant threat to their operations. The other country to feel the impact of our attack as though it had been directed at them was Russia, which must be seen as the foster father of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. France can claim the title of father since they accepted a 1.18 billion dollar loan from Iran for a 10% stake in the output of the nascent Eurodif enrichment plant at Tricastin. Still, revolutionary developments in Iran caused the French to renege on the deal, and at that point, Russia became Iran’s primary nuclear benefactor. When Iran was embarrassed by a clandestine act of cyber war, it fell to Russia to respond. Was John Wheeler III the world’s first cyber warfare fatality?

Wheeler was not killed by a computer. In fact, his death had all the hallmarks of poisoning, a modus operandi long associated with the KBG. It is reasonable to argue that very few targets would send a more effective message to the U.S. defense establishment than the assassination of one of America’s premier cyber experts. Among his many accomplishments, Wheeler was one of the very first American cyberwarriors. According to the Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Award presented to him in 2008, he was “the first of two graduates of the United States Air Force Academy to enter the Air Force Institute of Technology Cyber Master’s Program.” Besides being among the first, few people in or out of government were more influential in holding the government accountable for dealing effectively with the coming cyber plague.

Mitre Corp is not a suspect because of how blatant and public Jack’s murder was. Indeed, if they were involved, secrecy would be paramount. The same is not the case for Russia. Recently their victims have spectacularly tumbled from a fourth-floor window or splatted into the courtyard of a New York consulate, lain bullet-riddled on a Moscow sidewalk, or wasted away in a hospital bed on prime-time television, all the while attesting to the fact that Putin had had him irreversibly poisoned in a swank London restaurant. A reasonable person could assume that if Vladimir Putin wants you dead, it is often because of the ever-so-public message your death will send to his adversaries. As the gulls wheeled over the body of Jack Wheeler, was Putin sending Barack Obama a statement “When it comes to death, as with so much else in life, true speed is being there.” Russia certainly had the means and motive. Then, there is the after-action.

If there is one military doctrine that separates the great general from all the merely adequate, it is their commitment to follow a successful first attack with a second or even third attack. Invariably they will seize the initiative and press their advantage, collecting all the fruit of their original victory. If this essay prompts you to consider this issue in greater detail, be sure to read about some of the very first conspiracy theories on the internet. You may decide that while the U.S. Intelligence community was busy putting a lid on this story, someone else was equally busy spinning explanations designed to reinforce doubt among Americans about the death of Mr. Wheeler. These immediately raised the question, “Was this all part of our government’s war against its citizens?” Tales of Phosphene gas eco-disasters and a massive die-off of blackbirds begin to fill the vacuum created by the lack of more credible information and provide attractive bait to the fringe of American politics, both left and right.

Meanwhile, a Neo-Nazi publication propagates the theory that Dick Cheney had Jack killed for crossing him in a nuclear weapons shell game involving swapping fake warheads for live ones. Rather than respond to what would compare to harassing fire from the flanks in a shooting war, the police, defense, and intelligence community close ranks secure their vital interest and prepare for the next major battle. Soon the story evaporates into the cloud, and only geeks like me continue to remember Jack Wheeler.

Since the 6th of January, the USA has witnessed only some of the earliest aftereffects of the most colossally successful cyber-attacks launched on any country ever. The final toll of this attack will not be known in our lifetime, if ever. Like so many of the other conflicts of our time, it will likely never have a definite end. But when historians look back at the beginning of this first cyber war, don’t be surprised if the name John P Wheeler III isn’t listed as the first fatality. Jack had signed up for that possibility years ago, long before “cyber” was a prefix for nearly every aspect of war. He was special that way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s