In "Cyber War," author Richard Clarke explores the newest front of modern war: the Internet and how America could already be on the losing side.
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It was in the depths of a gray and chill Washington winter. On a side street not far from Dupont Circle, in a brownstone filled with electric guitars and an eclectic collection of art, we gathered to remember the man who had taught us how to analyze issues of war
and defense. Two dozen of his former students, now mostly in their fifties, drank toasts that February night in 2009 to Professor William W. Kaufmann, who had died weeks earlier at age ninety. Bill, as everyone referred to him that night, had taught defense analysis and strategic nuclear weapons policy at MIT for decades, and later at Harvard and the Brookings Institution. Generations of civilian and military "experts" had earned that title by passing through his courses. Bill was also an advisor to six Secretaries of Defense, sitting in the "front office" on the E Ring of the Pentagon. He shuttled between Boston and Washington every week for decades.
Behind his back, some of us had referred to Professor Kaufmann as "Yoda," in part because of a vague physical and stylistic resemblance, but chiefly because we thought of him as our Jedi master, the man who understood the workings of the Force and tried to teach them to us. As an analyst and advisor, Bill had been one of a handful of civilians who had created the framework of strategic nuclear war doctrine in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They had walked the United States back from a nuclear strategy that had called for the United States to go first in a nuclear war, to use all of its nuclear weapons in one massive attack, and to destroy hundreds of cities in Europe and Asia. Bill and his colleagues had probably prevented a global nuclear war and had made strategic arms control possible. Our conversation that night, lubricated by the same martinis Bill used to drink with us, turned to the future. What could we do to honor the memory of William W. Kaufmann and the other strategists of the second half of the twentieth century? We could, someone suggested, continue their work, use what Bill had taught us, ask the tough analytical questions about today's strategy. Another at the table suggested that today is very different from the 1950s, when nuclear weapons were being deployed without a thoughtful strategy; strategies are well developed today.
But is it such a different time? In the first decade of the twentyfirst century, the U.S. developed and systematically deployed a new type of weapon, based on our new technologies, and we did so without a thoughtful strategy. We created a new military command to conduct a new kind of high-tech war, without public debate, media discussion, serious congressional oversight, academic analysis, or international dialogue. Perhaps, then, we are at a time with some striking similarities to the 1950s. Perhaps, then, we need to stimulate learned discussion and rigorous analysis about that new kind of weapon, that new kind of war.
It is cyberspace and war in it about which I speak. On October 1, 2009, a general took charge of the new U.S. Cyber Command, a military organization with the mission to use information technology and the Internet as a weapon. Similar commands exist in Russia, China, and a score of other nations. These military and intelligence organizations are preparing the cyber battlefield with things called "logic bombs" and "trapdoors," placing virtual explosives in other countries in peacetime. Given the unique nature of cyber war, there may be incentives to go first. The most likely targets are civilian in nature. The speed at which thousands of targets can be hit, almost anywhere in the world, brings with it the prospect of highly volatile crises. The force that prevented nuclear war, deterrence, does not work well in cyber war. The entire phenomenon of cyber war is shrouded in such government secrecy that it makes the Cold War look like a time of openness and transparency. The biggest secret in the world about cyber war may be that at the very same time the U.S. prepares for offensive cyber war, it is continuing policies that make it impossible to defend the nation effectively from cyber attack.
A nation that has invented the new technology, and the tactics to use it, may not be the victor, if its own military is mired in the ways of the past, overcome by inertia, overconfident in the weapons they have grown to love and consider supreme. The originator of the new offensive weaponry may be the loser unless it has also figured out how to defend against the weapon it has shown to the rest of the world. Thus, even though the American colonel Billy Mitchell was the first to understand the ability of small aircraft to sink mighty battleships, it was the Japanese Imperial Navy that acted on that understanding, and came close to defeating the Americans in the Pacific in World War II. It was Britain that first developed the tank, and a French colonel, Charles de Gaulle, who devised the tactics of rapid attack with massed tanks, supported by air and artillery. Yet it was a recently defeated Germany that perfected the tank in the 1930s and first employed de Gaulle's tactics, which later became known as blitzkrieg. (As recently as 1990, and again in 2003, the U.S. military went to war with an updated version of the seventyyear- old blitzkrieg tactic: fast movement of heavy tank units, supported by aircraft.) Warmed by the camaraderie of my fellow ex-students, and by the martinis, I left the brownstone and wandered out into that cold night, pondering this irony of history, and making a commitment to myself, and to Bill, that I would try to stimulate open, public analysis and discussion of cyber-war strategy before we stumbled into such a conflict. This book is the down payment on that commitment. I knew that I needed a younger partner to join me in trying to understand the military and technological implications of cyber war well enough to produce this book. Different generations think of cyberspace differently. For me, looking at my sixtieth birthday in 2010, cyberspace is something that I saw gradually creep up around me. It happened after I had already had a career dealing with nuclear weapons, in a bipolar world. I became the first Special Advisor to the President for Cyber Security in 2001, but my views of cyber war are colored by my background in nuclear strategy and espionage. Rob Knake was thirty when he and I wrote this book. For his generation, the Internet and cyberspace are as natural as air and water. Rob's career has focused on homeland security and the transnational threats of the twenty-first century. We have worked together at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, at Good Harbor Consulting, and on the Obama for America campaign. In 2009, Rob won the prestigious International Affairs Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations with an appointment to study cyber war. We decided to use the first-person singular in the text because many times I will be discussing my personal experiences with government, with the information-technology industry, and with Washington's clans, but the research, writing, and concept development were a joint enterprise. We have wandered around Washington and other parts of this country together in search of answers to the many questions surrounding cyber war. Many people have helped us in that search, some of them wishing to remain unnamed in this book because of their past or present associations. We had spent long hours discussing, debating, and arguing until we found a synthesis of our views. Rob and I both agree that cyber war is not some victimless, clean, new kind of war that we should embrace. Nor is it some kind of secret weapon that we need to keep hidden from the daylight and from the public. For it is the public, the civilian population of the United States and the publicly owned corporations that run our key national systems, that are likely to suffer in a cyber war.
While it may appear to give America some sort of advantage, in fact cyber war places this country at greater jeopardy than it does any other nation. Nor is this new kind of war a game or a figment of our imaginations. Far from being an alternative to conventional war, cyber war may actually increase the likelihood of the more traditional combat with explosives, bullets, and missiles. If we could put this genie back in the bottle, we should, but we can't. Therefore, we need to embark on a complex series of tasks: to understand what cyber war is, to learn how and why it works, to analyze its risks, to prepare for it, and to think about how to control it.
This book is an attempt to begin to do some of that. It is not a technical book, not meant to be an electrical engineer's guide to the details of cyber weapons. Nor is it designed to be a Washington wonk's acronym-filled, jargon-encrusted political or legal exegesis. Finally, it is also definitely not a military document and not written to be immediately translatable into Pentagonese. Therefore, some experts in each of those fields may think the book simplistic in places where it discusses things they understand and opaque in parts that stretch beyond their expertise. Overall, we have tried to strike a balance and to write in an informal style that will be both clear and occasionally entertaining. Lest you take too much comfort in those assurances, however, it is necessary in a book on this subject to discuss the technology, the ways of Washington, as well as some military and intelligence themes. Likewise, it is impossible to avoid entirely the use of acronyms and jargon, and therefore we include a glossary (starting on page 281).
I have been taught by senior national security officials for decades never to bring them a problem without also suggesting a solution. This book certainly reveals some problems, but it also discusses potential solutions. Putting those or other defenses in place will take time, and until they are a reality, this nation and others are running some new and serious risks to peace, to international stability, to internal order, and to our national and individual economic well-being.
The authors wish to thank the many people who helped us with this book, most important the experts in and out of governments who helped us on condition that they go unnamed. Pieter Zatko, John Mallery, Chris Jordan, Ed Amoroso, Sami Saydjari, and Barnaby Page helped us understand some of the more technical aspects of cyber security. Paul Kurtz served as a constant sounding board and helped shape our thinking in innumerable ways. Ken Minihan, Mike McConnell, and Rich Wilhelm gave us added insight from their decades in government and the private sector, Alan Paller, Greg Rattray, and Jim Lewis gave their insights and latest thinking on this complex topic. We thank Janet Napolitano for taking time out of her busy schedule to meet with us and for being willing to do so on the record. We also thank Rand Beers for his wisdom. Will Howerton helped in a major way to get this book across the finish line. He possesses a keen editorial eye and a gift for research. Will Bardenwerper also provided editorial assistance. Bev Roundtree, as she has been on so many projects over the decades, was the sine qua non.
A quarter-moon reflected on the slowly flowing Euphrates, a river along which nations have warred for five thousand years. It was just after midnight, September 6, 2007, and a new kind of attack was about to happen along the Euphrates, one that had begun in cyberspace. On the east side of the river, seventy-five miles south into Syria from the Turkish border, up a dry wadi from the riverbank, a few low lights cast shadows on the wadi's sandy walls. The shadows were from a large building under construction. Many North Korean workers had left the construction site six hours earlier, queuing in orderly lines to load onto buses for the drive to their nearby dormitory. For a construction site, the area was unusually dark and unprotected, almost as if the builder wanted to avoid attracting attention.
Without warning, what seemed like small stars burst above the site, illuminating the area with a blue-white clarity brighter than daylight. In less than a minute, although it seemed longer to the few Syrians and Koreans still on the site, there was a blinding flash, then a concussive sound wave, and then falling pieces of debris. If their hearing had not been temporarily destroyed by the explosions, those on the ground nearby would then have heard a longer acoustic wash of military jet engines blanketing the area. Had they been able to look beyond the flames that were now sweeping the construction site, or above the illuminating flares that were still floating down on small parachutes, the Syrians and Koreans might have seen F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons banking north, back toward Turkey. Perhaps they would even have made out muted blue-and-white Star of David emblems on the wings of the Israeli Air Force strike formation as it headed home, unscathed, leaving years of secret work near the wadi totally destroyed.
Almost as unusual as the raid itself was the political silence that followed. The public affairs offices of the Israeli government said nothing. Even more telling, Syria, which had been bombed, was silent. Slowly, the story started to emerge in American and British media. Israel had bombed a complex in eastern Syria, a facility being built by North Koreans. The facility was related to weapons of mass destruction, the news accounts reported from unnamed sources. Israeli press censors allowed their nation's newspapers to quote American media accounts, but prohibited them from doing any reporting of their own. It was, they said, a national security matter. Prompted by the media accounts, the Syrian government belatedly admitted there had been an attack on their territory. Then they protested it, somewhat meekly. Syrian President Assad asserted that what had been destroyed was "an empty building." Curiously, only North Korea joined Damascus in expressing outrage at this surprise attack.
Media accounts differed slightly as to what had happened and why, but most quoted Israeli government sources as saying that the facility had been a North Korean–designed nuclear weapons plant. If that was true, North Korea had violated an agreement with the United States and other major powers that it would stop selling nuclear weapons know-how. Worse, it meant that Syria, a nation on Israel's border, a nation that had been negotiating with Israel through the Turks, had actually been trying secretly to acquire nuclear weapons, something that even Saddam Hussein had stopped doing years before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Soon, however, self-anointed experts were casting doubt on the "Syria was making a nuclear bomb" story.
Satellite pictures, taken by reconnaissance satellite, were revealed by Western media. Experts noted that the site had little security around it before the bombing. Some contended that the building was not tall enough to house a North Korean nuclear reactor. Others pointed to the lack of any other nuclear infrastructure in Syria.
They offered alternative theories. Maybe the building was related to Syria's missile program. Maybe Israel had just gotten it wrong and the building was relatively innocent, like Saddam Hussein's alleged "baby milk factory" of 1990 or Sudan's supposed aspirin plant of 1998, both destroyed in U.S. strikes. Or maybe, said some commentators, Syria was not the real target. Maybe Israel was sending a message to Iran, a message that the Jewish state could still successfully carry out surprise air strikes, a message that a similar strike could occur on Iranian nuclear facilities unless Tehran stopped its nuclear development program.
Media reports quoting unnamed sources claimed various degrees of American involvement in the raid: the Americans had discovered the site on satellite photography, or the Americans had overlooked the site and the Israelis had found it on satellite images given to them routinely by the U.S. intelligence community; the Americans had helped plan the bombing, perhaps persuading the Turkish military to look the other way as the Israeli attack formation sailed over Turkey to surprise Syria by attacking from the north. Americans— or were they Israelis?—had perhaps snuck into the construction site before the bombing to confirm the North Korean presence, and maybe verify the nuclear nature of the site. President George W. Bush, uncharacteristically taciturn, flatly refused to answer a reporter's question about the Israeli attack.
The one thing that most analysts agreed upon was that something strange had happened. In April 2008, the CIA took the unusual step of producing and publicly releasing a video showing clandestine imagery from inside the facility before it was bombed. The film left little doubt that the site had been a North Korean–designed nuclear facility. The story soon faded. Scant attention was paid when, seven months later, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its report. It had sent inspectors to the site. What the inspectors found was not a bombed-out ruin, nor did they come upon a beehive of renewed construction activity. Instead, the international experts were taken to a site that had been neatly plowed and raked, a site showing no signs of debris or construction materials. It looked like an unimproved home lot for sale in some desert community outside of Phoenix, perfectly anodyne. The disappointed inspectors took pictures. They filled plastic ziplock baggies with soil samples and then they left the banks of the Euphrates and flew back to their headquarters on an island in the Danube near Vienna. There they ran tests in their laboratories.
The IAEA announced, again to little attention, that the soil samples had contained unusual, "man-made," radioactive materials. For those few who had been following the mystery of Syria's Euphrates enigma, that was the end of the story, vindicating Israel's highly regarded intelligence service.
Despite how unlikely it seemed, Syria in fact had been secretly fooling around with nuclear weapons, and the bizarre regime in North Korea had been helping. It was time to reassess the intentions of both Damascus and Pyongyang.
Behind all of this mystery, however, was another intrigue. Syria had spent billions of dollars on air defense systems. That September night, Syrian military personnel were closely watching their radars. Unexpectedly, Israel had put its troops on the Golan Heights on full alert earlier in the day. From their emplacements on the occupied Syrian territory, Israel's Golani Brigade could literally look into downtown Damascus through their long-range lenses. Syrian forces were expecting trouble. Yet nothing unusual appeared on their screens. The skies over Syria seemed safe and largely empty as midnight rolled around. In fact, however, formations of Eagles and Falcons had penetrated Syrian airspace from Turkey. Those aircraft, designed and first built in the 1970s, were far from stealthy. Their steel and titanium airframes, their sharp edges and corners, the bombs and missiles hanging on their wings, should have lit up the Syrian radars like the Christmas tree illuminating New York's Rockefeller Plaza in December. But they didn't.
What the Syrians slowly, reluctantly, and painfully concluded the next morning was that Israel had "owned" Damascus's pricey air defense network the night before. What appeared on the radar screens was what the Israeli Air Force had put there, an image of nothing. The view seen by the Syrians bore no relation to the reality that their eastern skies had become an Israeli Air Force bombing range. Syrian air defense missiles could not have been fired because there had been no targets in the system for them to seek out. Syrian air defense fighters could not have scrambled, had they been fool enough to do so again against the Israelis, because their Russian-built systems required them to be vectored toward the target aircraft by groundbased controllers. The Syrian ground-based controllers had seen no targets.
By that afternoon, the phones were ringing in the Russian Defense Ministry off Red Square. How could the Russian air defense system have been blinded? Syria wanted to know. Moscow promised to send experts and technicians right away. Maybe there had been an implementation problem, maybe a user error, but it would be fixed immediately. The Russian military-industrial complex did not need that kind of bad publicity about its products. After all, Iran was about to buy a modern air defense radar and missile system from Moscow. In both Tehran and Damascus, air defense commanders were in shock.
Cyber warriors around the world, however, were not surprised. This was how war would be fought in the information age, this was Cyber War. When the term "cyber war" is used in this book, it refers to actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation's computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption. When the Israelis attacked Syria, they used light and electric pulses, not to cut like a laser or stun like a taser, but to transmit 1's and 0's to control what the Syrian air defense radars saw. Instead of blowing up air defense radars and giving up the element of surprise before hitting the main targets, in the age of cyber war, the Israelis ensured that the enemy could not even raise its defenses.
The Israelis had planned and executed their cyber assault flawlessly. Just how they did it is a matter of some conjecture.
There are at least three possibilities for how they "owned" the Syrians. First, there is the possibility suggested by some media reports that the Israeli attack was preceded by a stealthy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that intentionally flew into a Syrian air defense radar's beam. Radar still works essentially the same way it began seventy years ago in the Battle of Britain. A radar system sends out a directional radio beam. If the beam hits anything, it bounces back to a receiver. The processor then computes where the object was that the radio beam hit, at what altitude it was flying, at what speed it was moving, and maybe even how big an object was up there. The key fact here is that the radar is allowing an electronic beam to come from the air, back into the ground-based computer system.
Radar is inherently an open computer door, open so that it can receive back the electronic searchers it has sent out to look for things in the sky. A stealthy Israeli UAV might not have been seen by the Syrian air defense because the drone would have been coated with material that absorbs or deflects a radar beam. The UAV might, however, have been able to detect the radar beam coming up from the ground toward it and used that very same radio frequency to transmit computer packets back down into the radar's computer and from there into the Syrian air defense network. Those packets made the system malfunction, but they also told it not to act there was anything wrong with it. They may have just replayed a do-loop of the sky as it was before the attack. Thus, while the radar beam might later have bounced off the attacking Eagles and Falcons, the return signal did not register on the Syrian air defense computers. The sky would look just like it had when it was empty, even though it was, in actuality, filled with Israeli fighters. U.S. media reports indicate that the United States has a similar cyber attack system, code-named Senior Suter.
Second, there is the possibility that the Russian computer code controlling the Syrian air defense network had been compromised by Israeli agents. At some point, perhaps in the Russian computer lab or in a Syrian military facility, someone working for Israel or one of its allies may have slipped a "trapdoor" into the millions of lines of computer code that run the air defense program. A "trapdoor" (or "Trojan Horse") is simply a handful of lines of computer code that look just like all the other gibberish that comprise the instructions for an operating system or application. (Tests run by the National Security Agency determined that even the best-trained experts could not, by visually looking through the millions of lines of symbols, find the "errors" that had been introduced into a piece of software.)
The "trapdoor" could be instructions on how to respond to certain circumstances. For example, if the radar processor discovers a particular electronic signal, it would respond by showing no targets in the sky for a designated period of time, say, the next three hours. All the Israeli UAV would have to do is send down that small electronic signal. The "trapdoor" might be a secret electronic access point that would allow someone tapping into the air defense network to get past the intrusion-detection system and firewall, through the encryption, and take control of the network with full administrator's rights and privileges.
The third possibility is that an Israeli agent would find any fiberoptic cable of the air defense network somewhere in Syria and splice into the line (harder than it sounds, but doable). Once on line, the Israeli agent would type in a command that would cause the "trapdoor" to open for him. While it is risky for an Israeli agent to be wandering around Syria cutting into fiber-optic cables, it is far from impossible. Reports have suggested for decades that Israel places its spies behind Syrian borders. The fiber-optic cables for the Syrian national air defense network run all over the country, not just inside military installations. The advantage of an agent in place hacking into the network is that it does not cause the operation to rely upon the success of a "takeover packet" entering the network from a UAV flying overhead. Indeed, an agent in place could theoretically set up a link from his location back to Israel's Air Force command post. Using low-probability-of-intercept (LPI) communications methods, an Israeli agent may be able to establish "cove comms" (covert communications), even in downtown Damascus, beaming up to a satellite with little risk of anyone in Syria noticing.
Whatever method the Israelis used to trick the Syrian air defense network, it was probably taken from a playbook they borrowed from the U.S. Our Israeli friends have learned a thing or two from the programs we have been working on for more than two decades. In 1990, as the United States was preparing to go to war with Iraq for the first time, early U.S. cyber warriors got together with Special Operations commandos to figure out how they could take out the extensive Iraqi air defense radar and missile network just before the initial waves of U.S. and allied aircraft came screeching in toward Baghdad. As the hero of Desert Storm, four-star General Norm Schwarzkopf, explained to me at the time, "these snake-eaters had some crazy idea" to sneak into Iraq before the first shots were fired and seize control of a radar base in the south of the country. They planned to bring with them some hackers, probably from the U.S. Air Force, who would hook up to the Iraqi network from inside the base and then send out a program that would have caused all the computers on the network all over the country to crash and be unable to reboot.