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Dark territory. The secret history of cyber war

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Fred Kaplan discusses ‘Dark Territory,’ his book on the untold story of the officers, policymakers, scientists, and spies who devised a new form of warfare — cyber war — and who have been planning (and, more often than people know, fighting) this kind of war for decades, from the 1991 Gulf War to conflicts in Haiti, Serbia, Syria, the former Soviet republics, Iraq, and Iran.

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows. It includes a discussion with the author, cocktail reception, and book signing.


LINDSAY: Good evening, everybody. On behalf of Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, I want to welcome all of you tonight. Thank you for coming, particularly leaving the absolutely gorgeous weather we have outside to come inside for this talk. I am Jim Lindsay. I am the director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I also want to thank everyone who is joining us via the Internet as we livestream tonight’s event. You’re in for a real treat, as we have a very timely and important discussion. Tonight’s guest of honor is Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Fred Kaplan. Fred holds a Ph.D. from MIT, and he writes the War Stories column for Slate. Last year he was the Edward R. Murrow press fellow here at the Council. And we’re all here tonight to celebrate what Fred was working on during his year at CFR, namely his new book, “Dark Territory: The Secret of Cyber War.”

KAPLAN: Secret history.

LINDSAY: Secret history, excuse me. I’ve been corrected. “Secret History of Cyber War.” So please join me in welcoming Fred Kaplan. (Applause.)

KAPLAN: Thank you.

LINDSAY: Because last time I threw my stuff on the floor, so. Congratulations, Fred, on writing the book and competing it.

KAPLAN: Thanks.

LINDSAY: I read it over the weekend, couldn’t put it down. So let me being with sort of the obvious question posed by the title, what is dark territory?

KAPLAN: Ah. Well, you know, this is my fifth book. And each time I write a book, I say to myself, the title will emerge in my notes, and it never does. But this time I was going through my notes of an interview with Robert Gates, and he’s talking about how when he first became secretary of defense and he was getting these daily briefings about how many cyberattacks were coming into the Pentagon.

And he goes to some of his associates and colleagues and he says: Look, you know, we need to get together with the major cyber powers and figure out some rules of the road. You know, even in the worst days of the Cold War we had rules with the Soviet Union, like we didn’t kill each other’s spies, you know, things like that. We need to figure out what kinds of targets shouldn’t be attacked with this kind of thing. And he said, and you know, because right now we are wandering in dark territory. And I said, there’s the title of my book, dark territory.

But you know, I Google searched it because, you know, I didn’t want to—I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting some euphemism for some obscene act or something. (Laughter.) And it turned out that dark territory is a term of art in the North American railroads to designate stretches of tracks that are not governed by signals. And I’m thinking, wow, now, that’s a great metaphor for cyberspace. So I send him an email and said: Did you know this? And he said, oh, yeah, sure. My grandfather was a stationmaster on the Santa Fe Railroad in Pratt, Kansas for 50 years. We used railroad terminology all the time when I was growing up.

So that’s kind of the theme of this book, that we are in dark territory. It’s a subject that has been encased in extreme secrecy, because it has been enveloped in the National Security Agency which, you know, NSA used to—the joke that it stood for No Such Agency. You know, nothing goes in and nothing comes out. It’s a black hole of the bureaucracy. And so nobody has been—nobody on the outside has been thinking about these issues. The Defense Science Board is just now—has a project going on to figure out what cyber deterrence means.

They’re so primitive that at one point I was interviewing some guy for the third time, and he was pretty high up in intelligence, and he said: You know, what’s your thoughts about cyber deterrence. I said, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out what anybody’s thoughts are. And he goes, oh, that’s too bad, because I’m this DSB panel. I was hoping maybe you could join. And I’m thinking, if they’re asking me—figuring on me to join this, which I wouldn’t do anyway, but they must be in really sad shape.

LINDSAY: Well, let me ask you a question though before we turn to the substance, just on a matter of process. You just set out the fact that all of this is encased in a great deal of secrecy. So how does one write a book about secrets that presumably you’re privy to?

KAPLAN: Yeah, well, you know, we all have our tricks. No, this was a tough one….



‘Dark Territory’ Examines The Long History Of Cyber War

March 27, 20165:15 PM ET


We’ve been talking about terrorism a lot this evening, and now we’re going to focus on what you might call a non-violent version, cyber warfare.

Just last week, the Justice Department indicted seven hackers tied to the Iranian government. Officials said they broke into major U.S. banks a few years ago and caused millions of dollars in damages. They also tried to shut down a dam in New York state.

Fred Kaplan says these sorts of attacks happen constantly. Kaplan writes about international affairs for Slate magazine, and he’s author of a new book, «Dark Territory: The Secret History Of Cyber War.» He joins us from New York.

Fred, thanks for joining us.

FRED KAPLAN: Thank you.

ZWERDLING: I want to go back in history a bit ‘cause you tell a story that I had briefly heard and I always thought was apocryphal. You say that America’s program to fight cyber war really got off the ground thanks to President Reagan and thanks to Hollywood.

KAPLAN: That’s right. In June of 1983, the first weekend, Ronald Reagan is up at Camp David. And he was watching movies all the time, and one movie that he watched was «WarGames.»

You might remember Matthew Broderick plays this tech whiz teenager who unwittingly hacks into the main computer of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and, thinking that he’s glommed onto some new online game called «Global Thermonuclear War,» almost really sets off World War III.


JAMES ACKERMAN: (As Joshua) Which side do you want?

MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As David) I’ll be the Russians.

ACKERMAN: (As Joshua) Please list primary targets.

BRODERICK: (As David) Who should we nuke first?

ALLY SHEEDY: (As Jennifer) Let’s see. How about Las Vegas?

BRODERICK: (As David) Las Vegas, great.

KAPLAN: And so the following Wednesday, Reagan is back in the White House, where there’s a big national security meeting. It’s not about this kind of thing. It was about something else.

But he can’t get this movie out of his mind, so he launches into this very detailed plot summary. And people are kind of looking around, raising their eyebrows, smothering smirks, wondering what’s going on here. And he turns to his top general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Vesi, and says general, could something like this really happen?

And Gen. Vesi says, I’ll look into that, Mr. President. And he comes back a week later and he says Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think. And this leads, about a year later, to this first presidential directive on computer security.

So it was at this moment that the policy debates and ideas and discussions of vulnerability that are now still headline news today first took form.

ZWERDLING: So let’s jump ahead in history now. We all know that hacking has become a part of life. You write that there was a huge turning point in the kinds of cyberattacks almost exactly two years ago.

KAPLAN: That’s right. A couple years ago, Sheldon Adelson – who is the majority stockholder of Vegas Sands Casinos and a well-known right-wing political supporter with very pro-Israel views – made a statement at a public forum saying that if the Iranians didn’t get serious on getting rid of their nuclear weapons, that maybe we ought to drop an atomic bomb in the middle of the desert and say if you don’t stop this, the next bomb we drop is going to be on Tehran.


‘Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War,’ by Fred Kaplan

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten,” Rudyard Kipling said. “Dark Territory” takes this approach in trying to tell what it calls in its subtitle “The Secret History of Cyber War.”

A Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism and now a columnist for Slate, Fred ­Kaplan has written a number of highly regarded books on national security issues, including “The Wizards of Armageddon,” on the creation of Cold War nuclear strategy; “Daydream Believers,” about the thinkers in the George W. Bush administration who believed they could transform the world with minimal costs; and “The Insurgents,” about the counterinsurgency theorists who tried to change the American way of war and (unsuccessfully) clean up the mess left behind by the people in Kaplan’s earlier books.

“Dark Territory” builds on this trifecta, taking the reader into the world of the new security topic du jour — cyberwar. The title comes from the former secretary of defense Robert Gates, who said that when it comes to the questions of conflict in the digital age, “we’re wandering in dark territory.” There is widespread uncertainty not just about how a cyberwar should be fought, but also over the fundamentals of who should fight it and even whether it is a war or not.

Kaplan follows Kipling’s advice, gathering the stories of American government leaders who played key roles in the development of cybersecurity policy. They range from White House officials and former directors of the National Security Agency to lesser-known figures like Willis Ware. An engineer turned policy adviser, Ware wrote the first paper warning of the problems of cybersecurity, in 1967, before Arpanet, the progenitor of the Internet, had even been created.


P. W. Singer is strategist and senior fellow at New America, and the author of several books, including “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know” and “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.”


The Hacked World Order-How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age’. Adam Segal discusses ‘The Hacked World Order,’ his new book on how governments use the web to wage war and spy on, coerce, and damage each other.


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