The Division: Could It Happen?

I’m sure many of you have ventured into the quarantined zone that was once Manhattan New York and witnessed the extremely visceral scenes of a pandemic ridden collapse in civilization and order. It’s a shocking experience to be sure and Ubisoft has done a remarkable job replicating this dystopian feel and environment, but ever since it’s announcement I’ve seen the debate on the feasibility of such a plot posing the overall question of; could The Division actually happen? In the pursuit of that answer, we’re going to go over some of the key elements and see if we can draw a conclusion based on real information.

Warning: SPOILERS

First and foremost let’s examine the root of the pandemic, “The Dollar Flu” or “Green Poison” as it’s dubbed in the game – a genetically augmented strain of the smallpox virus. But isn’t everyone vaccinated and protected from this virus eradicated in 1979 thanks to advancements in medical science? Sadly no, vaccinations have ceased following the eradication of the virus. Not to mention the U.S. and Russian governments have resisted the final destruction of their reserve stocks of the smallpox virus,  claiming that they could still hold value in the development of new vaccines or anti-viral drugs; though this is generally disputed in the scientific community. So we do still have active strains of the smallpox virus meaning that it’s not fully eradicated. Knowing this, we look at the beginning – a degenerating eco-terrorist and virologist Dr. Gordon Amherst reaches out to a colleague in the medical community Dr. Vitaly Tchenoenko, a Russian Virologist, to provide him digitized strains of the virus genome. This wouldn’t actually be all that difficult to achieve because while the CDC and world governments have protocols on the transport of biological material, especially in the case of infectious and viral substances, it wouldn’t be the first time that even smallpox specifically was misplaced or mishandled.

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So now that we know that it really wouldn’t be too hard to obtain, especially for two virologists who likely work with the CDC in their respective countries, let’s move on. Weaponizing, nah – no one would do that right?  Well, there are actually some notable instances of the use of Smallpox as a weaponized virus. The British used smallpox infected blankets against the Native Americans after the Siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, which is an action often credited to one Sir Jeffery Amherst, commander of British forces in North America. Could this be the origin of the namesake for our eco-terrorist? Again smallpox was employed during the American Revolutionary War before having a rather lengthy break in the use as a weapon. It was again considered during World War II, where I hear things got a little serious, as scientists from the United Kingdom, United States, and Japan were involved in research attempting to produce a new biological weapon based on the virus. This would mark the beginning of some critical times for Smallpox when it rapidly became the focus of research in two major countries, the United States and Russia (wait, aren’t they the ones who refuse to destroy it now for… “Science”). Both countries have reportedly shut down any further weaponization research, but that hasn’t alleviated all concern. The scientific community supports the destruction of remaining stocks in part because the genome can be digitized, and potentially synthesized– as it was in The Division by Dr. Amherst.
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But what about the viability of an attack? Let’s take a look at Operation Dark Winter, the bio-terrorist attack simulation conducted in June of 2001 that The Division is credited as being directly based upon. There are numerous articles, reports, and studies covering the simulation, and even the un-redacted documents read like a VCR manual, so I find that Ubisoft gleaned The Division from what they were allowed to access to be amazing. Operation Dark Winter simulates a biological attack, using Smallpox, on Oklahoma City Oklahoma and reflects the rapid spread of the infection to 25 states and 15 other countries within just 13 days. Smallpox was selected because of its high case-fatality rates and transmissibility, making it one of the most serious biological warfare threats to a civilian population, as was made further evident by this simulation. Operation Dark Winter produced findings that covered the threats to national security caused by such an attack, the “fault lines” in communication between local, state, and federal government, the lack of surge capabilities for the healthcare system of the time, the need to manage information with the media to properly handle the situation, and the ethical, political, cultural, operational, and legal challenges of containing the spread of such a biological attack.

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As a result of simulations like Operation Dark Winter many changes were made to the US infrastructure, standing quantities of vaccine for Smallpox were increased by 40+ million, organizations like FEMA were given additional tasks and authorities, and plans were set into motion that would be shaped by future events and influence legislation. That brings us to Directive 51 referenced in the game, not simply a fabricated plot device it’s actually a direct reference to the National Security Presidential Directive 51 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 signed into law by George W. Bush on May 4th, 2007.  NSPD-51 outlines, and orders, the need for contingency procedures and the reservation of executive powers for the sake of the continuity of the federal government in the event of a catastrophic emergency. What does this mean exactly? The branches of the US Government, and US Military, created Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) for nearly all of their functions.  One project that stands out in particular would be the US Army’s proposal which suggests the utilization of National Guard and Reserve units in roles filling in for missing civilian alternatives; these functions include “… construction managers, police chiefs and officers, firefighters, electricians, telecommunications experts, plumbers, waste water professionals, power plant technicians, and more.” This could easily produce a Joint Task Force style unit of National Guard and Reservists performing any task they needed under direct orders from military leadership. This proposal has already been used to implement programs integrating activated reservists in civilian functions, and the author of the proposal is heading up one such project.

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Now, we have the means, the potential, and the viability for an attack and we have the contingency planning that gives emergency powers to the branches of the government with NSPD-51. But wait, what about our characters – the ultra awesome super-secret sleeper agents activated to defend the country? That couldn’t really be possible right? Well, I can’t technically confirm that it is or isn’t possible, for reasons. However, I can give you some information to consider and let you draw your own conclusions. NSPD-51 outlines the need to sustain National Essential Functions (NEFs) and Primary Mission Essential Functions (PMEFs) at each level of the government, which sounds innocuous right? To clarify Primary Mission Essential Functions are not necessarily static objectives and can vary based on the immediate need. To an agent in The Division this could easily translate into “Agent, you need to set up a Base of Operations and reactivate the medical facilities, the power supply, and a security detail. Oh, also, save these refugees, eliminate this crazy vigilante group, get rid of this paramilitary obstacle, and yeah save that Russian guy.”  A Primary Mission Essential Function is one that supports or implements a National Essential Function which is something that is necessary to lead and sustain the nation during a catastrophic emergency. Would you count shelter, medicine, power, and security among the things one would need to sustain a nation? Now any good contingency operation requires some sort of personnel and as luck would have it the unclassified text of the NSPD-51 states that one of the agencies requirements is that “Provision must be made for the identification, training, and preparedness of personnel capable of relocating to alternate facilities to support the continuation of the performance of PMEFs.”  Now consider too that it specifically outlines “Protecting against threats to the homeland and bringing to justice perpetrators of crimes or attacks against the United States or its people, property, or interests” as one of the primary National Essential Functions. Further consider that the Department of Justice, among other agencies and branches, have filed Continuity of Operation Plans that suspend various elements of due process and allow for the devolution of headquarters level authority all the way down to the field level of operation.

agentWhat are we left with? The potential for individuals who have been identified, recruited, trained, and relocated to support the performance of Primary Mission Essential Functions, who could in theory have the authority to “bring to justice” perpetrators of crimes or attacks against the United States, it’s people, property or interests, with the delegated authority to override the standard judicial process with little to no actual oversight. Doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore does it?

It’s important to understand that many of the details outlining specific tasks and roles for these agencies fall in classified annexes and documents that cannot be shared. However with what information is available, publicly or through Freedom of Information Law requests, we can gather not only the potential of but the preparations made for a biological attack against a major city in the US. We’ve also determined a contingency similar to the JTF is not only possible, but encouraged by the US Army, and we’ve determined that Division Agents aren’t technically impossible.  That leaves us with one more factor… I.S.A.C. the Intelligent System Analytic Computer – but that’s futuristic sci-fi stuff right, an interactive semi-artificial intelligence that can help you with your day to day missions and tasks, I’m not sure; let me do a quick search “Hey, Siri…”

On a final note I must point out that many details needed to be omitted due to their public availability restrictions, and some conclusions are drawn across multiple sources and are used here purely for entertainment purposes. It’s highly unlikely that such a program is in operation in the United States, but it doesn’t seem impossible which is what we set out to determine. Each of the local and state governments have their own implementation policies for articles of the NSPD-51 and related contingency planning initiatives. If you’d like to know more about them I encourage asking your local government officials, or querying the google. So until the collapse, I bid you luck Agent.

Do you think a “Division” scenario is possible? What would you do if it happened near you?

Tells us in the comments, or on our subreddit!