Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It


by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake
304 pages | Buy this book

Cyberspace has revolutionized the world economy and digitized daily life. That's the good news. The bad news: it has made individuals, corporations, and nations vulnerable to a new kind of attack from an elusive and largely misunderstood foe. Clarke explains the origin of the threat, how it is growing, and what an effective cyberdefense would look like.

What's The Big Deal?

Wars used to be waged with steel, then firearms, and eventually nuclear weapons. Today's hot new weaponry: hackers, bots, and "denial of service" attacks. These adversaries can be mild threats, as happened when somebody (Clarke suspects the North Koreans) shut down the Secret Service's site on the 4th of July last year. But they can be fatal when employed to shut down radar in advance of a bombing raid, as it's suspected Israel did when its air force attacked a North Korean nuclear facility in Syria three years ago.

Buzz Rating

Cyberattacks are still considered something that happens in some intangible virtual world—unlike a bomb, there's no hole in the ground and carnage to clean up afterward. Cyber War argues otherwise, laying out a very clear and present threat in a way that will likely generate much-needed talk in policy circles. Clarke's already talking up his argument to national outlets like NPR and ABC News, as well as NEWSWEEK. Still, it's not likely to shoot to the top of the bestseller lists.

One-Breath Author Bio

In 2004, Richard Clarke stood up when seemingly no one else would and told families of the 9/11 victims, "Your government failed you," and later wrote a bestseller with that title.

The Book, In His Words

"There is every reason to believe that most future kinetic wars will be accompanied by cyber war, and that other cyber wars will be conducted as 'stand alone' activities, without explosions, infantry, airpower, and navies … This book will lay out why the unpredictability associated with full-scale cyber war means that there is a credible possibility that such conflict may have the potential to change the world military balance and therefore fundamentally alter political and economic relation" (page 32).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Cyberspace isn't just the Internet. It includes virtually all kinds of electronic exchanges of information, like stock-market trades and credit-card transactions. And in recent decades, everyday electronic devices have been endowed with the ability to link to the grid. Even appliances you'd never expect to be a menace can. We're looking at you, photocopier. "Most people don't know that their copier could even be online" (page 71), Clarke writes. But many of them are, and they could inadvertently be creating holes for predators—anyone from competitor copier companies to hackers—to get in, disrupt, and wreak havoc. Clarke says that hackers can set your copiers aflame, spark the sprinkler system, and generally put a real crimp in your business day.

2. Clarke dates the origins of cyberwar back to the 1991 Gulf War, the first real battle in the age of information technology. Soon after, the Chinese began to think about cyberwar as an "asymmetric" tactic for a lesser power to take on a bigger power. By 2003, they had assembled a formal cyberwarfare unit as part of the Chinese military. Likewise, several factions of the U.S. government have been working on variations of information warfare and cyberwar for years. By 1995, military schools were training officers for cyberwar. And the U.S.'s cybercommand unit, known as the 24th Air Force, will have, according to Clarke, "6,000 to 8,000 military and civilian cyber warriors" (page 41) once it's fully assembled.

3. A DDOS, or "distributed denial of service," attack is one of the most vicious means of cyber war around today. Here's how it works: a group of hackers employs a virus to turn tens of thousands of unknowing computer users' PCs into zombie-like machines, then the hackers use those machines (the "botnet") to flood a Web site or service with a massive number of requests, overloading the system and shutting it down. At the same time as the July 4th attack, about 166,000 computers in 74 countries attacked banks and government sites in South Korea. South Korea quickly blamed North Korea. But the big problem with DDOS attacks: because they come from such a widely dispersed network, it is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to finger the culprit.

Swipe This Critique

The first half of the book does a wonderful job of laying out an elusive, fearful new enemy. But too many of Clarke's policy suggestions for how to counter the threat sound like remedies carried over from the Cold War age of nuclear weapons. His call for ac yberwar limitation treaty to establish cooperation and ground rules among nations evokes memories of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, a U.S.–Soviet Union pact that began in the 1970s. Given that he's dealing with a very recent phenomenon, it would be refreshing to move out of the old-government way of thinking.

Factoid File

Clarke ranks the U.S., Russia, and China as the major players in cyberwarfare. Israel and France run close behind, and a cluster of about two dozen other nations—including India, Pakistan, Iran, and South Korea—are scrambling to catch up. Though Kim Jong Il's reclusive regime may be one of the least wired places in the world, Clarke says that Pyongyang commands four cyberwarfare units, numbering upward of 1,000 people, many of which could be operating out of China, where it's easier to get online.

Tic Alert

Clarke has a distracting penchant for doomsday. There are a handful of glaring instances where the analysis and commentary suddenly veer off toward the end of the world. In one of his apocalyptic hypotheticals, a cyberattack has blacked out power in 157 major cities and flooded Texas and North Carolina with poison gas, subways are crashing, "aircraft are literally falling from the sky," natural gas pipelines have been blown up (the Northeast is freezing!), and individual units of the military can't talk to each other. Scary. But let's get back to those cyberwars, shall we?


Prose: The writing is clean, but there's too much subtle hedging. You can get a taste with above: "possibly," "likely," and "could" eventually undercut the argument.

Clarke draws the reader in with vivid stories of Israel attacking Syria and Russia attacking Estonia, then proceeds to lay out and analyze the threat.

Despite the serious subject matter, Clarke has no inhibitions about trying to have a good time, tossing in puns, asides, and quips and poking fun at the bureaucracy of national security.