The price of secrecy-first – a 2½-page story

Flash fiction

Mikael’s secrecy-first speech was cut short by the minister. ‘Tell me more about this cyber-attack. Are they really intending to cripple our railway network?’ the minister asked. He gestured slowly, like a monarch, and sat back in his upholstered chair. On either side the chairs had been arranged in a horse-shoe for his cohorts.

Secrecy first is used as a tool as well as a defence

Mikael knew he was being judged. He had rejected the offered chair and chosen to stand with a single intelligence researcher at his side. As the section head within the country’s internal intelligence service, he knew they would watch for the slightest clue on his pot marked face and bony hands.

‘The intent,’ Mikael said slowly, ‘is to reduce train capacity by eighty percent and extend journey times.’ Mikael thought of the minister’s limousine. ‘And road traffic will be gridlocked.’

‘But why trains? It’s not as damaging as a nuclear power station or our stock exchange.’

‘To panic people using social media. Our opponents have already prepared fake news stories that the subway trains will crash into each other and that road traffic signals will fail.’

‘Why specifically trains?’ the minister repeated his question.

‘The railway network is excluded from our Protected Critical Infrastructure.’ It had been a decision of the minister’s predecessor. ‘The signalling technology is so old that it can’t be upgraded with security measures – it has to be replaced. The replacement project has almost finished. The new technology is already being tested, but it won’t be ready for a month or more. Our source is certain their attack will occur in a week. The technical evidence of their preparations supports that.’

‘Then it must be stopped. We’ll cut the testing short and prepare a publicity campaign. Good. That was easy to solve.’

‘Minister, there is also the secrecy-first consideration. If we act now, it will be clear the intelligence came from our source. He will be killed – perhaps his family, too.’ There was no compassion on the minister’s face, so Mikael continued. ‘And next time our opponents prepare something, we will have no warning.’

‘Are you recommending we allow our infrastructure to grind to a halt for your secrecy-first obsession?’ It was a blatant exaggeration.

‘I do not recommend, Minister. I am presenting options for your consideration. You might also consider the option to delay the decision until two days before the attack. That buys us five days for more investigations, and gives a contingency of two days to build a defence. Secrecy-first is retained until we hit the last two days.’

Mikael left the room. He had not waited for the minister’s decision to act. Three days earlier he had assembled an investigation team, led by an experienced intelligence officer. The team had reached out to trusted contacts in the rail industry and its IT supplier.

‘Your private lives are cancelled,’ he announced to the team. ‘I’m cutting my sleep to three hours a night until this finishes.’

‘Our brief is to find a secrecy-first way to stop it?’ the intelligence officer asked.

‘Try. But I also want you to examine everything anomalous about this threat – I don’t care how odd it is, I’ll read it.’

He looked at their faces. They would follow his instructions and never ask why.

Mikael was back in the minister’s office on the deadline. This time he brought two witnesses. ‘Minister, despite extensive research, I regret there is no way of executing a defence in secret.’

‘So you’ve wasted our time.’ The comment sounded personal.

‘The time has been well spent. We have been investigating whether this was a bluff. Initially it was the coincidences: the timing, the ambiguity about the attack method, a choice of a target that could not be defended secretly, and a choice that would demand political reaction. Now we have evidence that the attack method would not work. It seems they have even fabricated key details, then passed these truths to their own research teams.’

‘They lied to their own people?’ The minister shook his head at the byzantine behaviour of the intelligence profession worldwide. ‘Why?’

‘To identify whether we have a source, and perhaps who it is. And once the source is dead, they would prepare a much larger attack for which we get no warning. It was a trap, minister.’