The air-conditioned world of Internet servers could not be further from the melting heat of the Middle East. Yet both are active battlefields, and in recent days each produced apparent wins and obvious losses for the U.S. The surprise was that the reverses came in the online world that the U.S. has long dominated and the apparent successes in a Middle East where the U.S. strengths count for less.
The cybersetback occurred in Washington, a place where it’s not uncommon to arrive home to find a calling card from the FBI. As one of its tasks, the bureau investigates Americans being considered for sensitive government jobs. There are a lot of those, and each involves a bargain: for the privilege of access to his secrets, Uncle Sam wants yours first. Bankruptcy, mental health, drugs–if it’s a vulnerable point, there’s a line for it on Standard Form 86, the “Questionnaire for National Security Positions.” It runs 127 pages and is checked against the record, including whatever the neighbors have observed. If it feels intrusive, it’s meant to be. Uncle Sam doesn’t want surprises.
So the cybertheft of some 4 million of those Form 86s–stored by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management–was a coup for whoever penetrated the agency, some months before the breach was detected and, on June 12, when it was finally acknowledged. The intruder–suspected to be China, though Beijing denies involvement–now knows the secrets of every American with a security clearance up to “top secret.” A foreign government could use the hacked secrets to blackmail Americans into spying for it–exactly what Form 86 was meant to prevent.
Washington can’t claim that it didn’t see this coming. If hacking is new to Major League Baseball–where the St. Louis Cardinals are being investigated for stealing data from the Houston Astros–it’s routine for governments. Last year saw 67,168 (known) intrusions of government computers at major federal agencies, 23 out of 24 of which the Government Accountability Office noted had “information security weaknesses.” Another study described Washington’s failure to attract talented Internet experts, a “hiring gap” seen in the fact that just 4% of federal cybersecurity staff are in their 20s. (The median age at Facebook is reportedly 28.)
Does that mean America is losing at cyberwar? Not necessarily. If Washington stinks at defense, on offense the National Security Agency (NSA) vacuums up far greater amounts of sensitive material than any other nation, even after Congress’s June 2 vote to end bulk collection of phone records. “The NSA has a reputation for having the largest budget, the best minds and the most sophisticated understanding in how to engage in online espionage,” says Andrew McLaughlin, a cybersecurity fellow at Columbia University.
If the U.S. still controls the online battlefield, that hasn’t been the case in the Middle East. In Yemen, a drone’s missile found Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader since 2009 of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s most lethal franchise. His death was announced June 16. Two days earlier, in the sky over Libya, a pair of F-15s guided 500-lb. bombs toward Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Islamist mastermind of the 2013 takeover of an Algerian gas plant that ended with the death of some 40 hostages, including three Americans. His fate remains unclear.
The world will be a better place without al-Wuhayshi and Belmokhtar, but their deaths will do only so much. Air strikes have been decapitating terrorist organizations for more than a decade. They always grow a new head. (Al-Wuhayshi’s replacement was announced with his death). In an echo of Vietnam War–era body counts, the Pentagon says its air campaign is killing 1,000 ISIS fighters a month. That’s the same number of foreign recruits arriving each month to join a battle not tilting our way. You don’t win a war with that kind of math.
But then the Middle East of 2015 is not the kind of place that plays to American strengths. Yemen and Libya are both in a state of civil war, infiltrated by jihadi groups. The forces convulsing the region–zealotry, tribalism, obsession with history–are the polar opposite of the relentless drive toward the future that has built America’s technological dominance. But that’s the thing about vulnerabilities. In time, they do come to light.
This appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of TIME.