The Secret History of Cyber War
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016, 321 pages
Book Review published on: March 3, 2017
The title of Fred Kaplan’s latest book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, is derived from a comment made by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when describing the rather unchartered territory that is cyberspace. Kaplan sheds much-needed light on this shadowy territory that has become a domain of warfare. With his extensive research, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist provides the reader with a comprehensive history of cyberwarfare and the many challenges the subject presents to policy makers and the private sector. While I highly recommend this book to any government official that may find themselves working within the cyber domain, I also recommend it to anyone that wishes to better understand the history of cyberwarfare and how the U.S. government is now defending against such threats. As the “Internet of things” now saturates our daily lives, it is in the interest of all Americans to better understand these threats and how they are being countered.
Kaplan provides the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the history of cyberwarfare and how it has evolved over the years. With the dawn of the digital age, the Internet began to have a significant impact on warfare and the government’s ability to safeguard critical infrastructure. Early on, some military leaders, particularly those in the Air Force, began to see the cyber domain as an opportunity to conduct “information operations” against the nation’s adversaries. As these officers began to identify the vulnerabilities that would allow for these types of operations, they also began to understand how adversaries might take advantage of those same weaknesses in order to conduct attacks against U.S. infrastructure.
At the same time the Internet was being discovered by military personnel, the nation’s foremost experts on signals intelligence began to understand how the internet was changing their world as well. By the late 1980s, the traditional methods used by the National Security Agency (NSA) were no longer bearing fruit. As nation-states moved more of their communication methods to the Internet, the NSA was forced to change with the times and adapted to the digital age. Although the technology to implement cyberwarfare advanced at a rapid pace, those advancements were not always matched by adjustments in policy. In fact, many of the same questions policy makers asked at the dawn of the Internet continue to bewilder our nation’s leaders to this day. What does a cyberattack entail? Is it an act of war? If so, what is the appropriate response? Until these basic questions are answered, efforts to succeed in this “dark territory” will remain questionable.
According to Kaplan, cyber policies continue to evolve, having greatly expanded in an effort to defend against terrorist attacks and then drawn in to ensure the civil liberties of American citizens are not threatened. Kaplan educates the reader on the current administration’s efforts to address cybersecurity policy in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. In response, President Barack Obama appointed a five-person committee to research and review the NSA’s cyber collection programs. The committee members made a substantial impact, updating how the NSA goes about defending against cyberthreats, while also ensuring there are safeguards to protect the civil liberties of American citizens. As one committee member later told NSA employees, “The NSA deserves the respect and appreciation of the American people. But it should never, ever, be trusted.”
The delicate balance between protecting civil liberties and using the cyber domain as an instrument of warfare can be perplexing and will continue to confound policy makers in the coming years. However, this book provides a historical context to better understand how policy makers have made past decisions on cyber policy and for what reasons. As noted in Dark Territory, former Idaho Senator Frank Church once said, “The American public should know enough about intelligence activities to be able to apply their good sense to the underlying issues of policy and morality.” Kaplan provides the reader with enough of this “good sense” to better understand the cyber realm and question when and if the government oversteps its bounds.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. James Welch, U.S. Army, Fort Benning, Georgia