Obama’s belated but welcome Ground Zero mosque intervention

“Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”

Offering his first public comments on the decision to build a 13-storey Islamic centre and mosque near the site of the twin towers in New York City, the US president, Barack Obama, has made what, to many, is a statement of the obvious:


We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country.

That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.

Until now the president has steered away from commenting on a subject his press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted was a local matter. It was left to the independent-minded, formerly Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, to give the proposal the green light.

Bloomberg has now welcomed Obama's belated intervention, comparing it with a letter President George Washington wrote in support of a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790. Quoted on, Bloomberg said: "President Obama's words tonight evoked President Washington's own august reminder that 'all possess alike liberty'."

Meanwhile, Fox News has sought viewers' verdict on the Obama speech -- and you may not be surprised by the results of the online poll.

Asked whether they shared the president's view that "Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country", 80 per cent checked the box that said: "No, this is about sensitivity, not religion." That's 89,431 votes in this unscientific poll and counting . . .


Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.