In the wrangle over America's Fiscal Cliff, Barack Obama holds all the cards

There is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory on the budget negotiations; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

As of now, it looks like the US will go off the so-called “fiscal cliff” tonight at midnight. Several days of extraordinary manoeuvring on and around Capitol Hill in Washington have so far resulted in no deal, and with one day left to galvanise America's behemoth political machinery the chances of one looks slimmer and slimmer.

This means that previously agreed measures (under a deal resolved with a kick-the-can-down-the-road Budgetary Control Act in 2011) will slot into place at midnight, removing a whole raft of tax breaks as well and making sadistically deep cuts to federal spending.

At a glance, it is hard to see why the Republicans are trying to make a deal at all. After all, weren't vicious spending cuts exactly what Romney and Ryan spent an election campaign demanding?

Part of the reason is, however, that the Republicans are afraid of public backlash. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that almost twice as many people blamed the Congressional Republicans for the fiscal cliff than the President; a PEW/Washington Post poll from earlier this month said the same. If the country goes off the cliff, the mid-term elections are going to be very hard on the GOP.

Looked at in detail, going off the cliff looks very unpleasant indeed. Sure, it will cut 607 billion dollars from the national deficit – according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – but its effects on people directly are brutal. Tax breaks for parents will be halved and the Earned Income Tax Credit will go, affecting low and middle-income workers. A 2% payroll tax break for workers will vanish. Capital gains tax will increase, as well as the tax paid on dividends.

Dramatically, more than 40% of the five million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months will lose their unemployment benefits. There will also be cuts to tax credits for families paying college tuition. High-earning Americans won't escape bracing tax hikes either, especially those who earn more than a million dollars a year.

On top of that, all federal services, from roads to schools to homeland security – with a few exceptions including Medicaid and veterans benefits – face cuts, and perhaps redundancies. The defence budget in particular will be hit very hard, and of course that will have a knock-on effect on the vast number of tertiary industries employed by the Pentagon. All of this, experts agree, will hit the stock market hard, perhaps plunging the country back into recession.

Congress, like schoolchildren, have put off doing their homework until the very last minute, and Senators have been told not to make new years' eve plans. This is going right down to the wire: if a deal is going to be reached, it has to happen today.

It is very possible – almost probable – that America will go over the cliff; but – whisper it – it might not actually be so bad. Many of the harsher of these measures can and almost certainly will be reversed straight out of the gate; and the cuts in federal spending are due to be staggered over the course of the next decade. Obama has already stated that if the country goes off the cliff, then the Senate – controlled by Democrats – would act to pass emergency measures to prevent the loss of unemployment benefits and tax increases on lower-income families. In doing so, he would look like the hero. Certainly, there is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

Politically, Obama is holding most of the cards. The situation is lose-lose for the Republican party. If the country goes off the cliff, the House's Republican Speaker John Boehner and his party will probably be percieved as responsible for it – and are going to be forced into helping the Democrats clean up some of the mess. If it doesn't happen, the President is likely to get the credit. Boehner tried to re-cast this narrative with him as the problem solver with his alternative, the so-called “plan B” - but it was a flop, ridiculed by the Democrats and the media.

Now, he and his Congressional colleagues are scrabbling for anything they can to make the deal palatable to Republicans but still acceptable to the Democrats. They aren't being handed many scraps.

Barack Obama returns to Washington. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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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.