Two centuries ago, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, “War is a continuation of politics with other means.”
The nice thing about aphorisms is that they are so easy to re-interpret for fresh purposes and present circumstances. In that way, aphorisms are unlike new technology, which often change the world around it far less than is credited to it purely by virtue of being novel and therefore more visible.
Former Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin and journalist Garrett Graff’s book Dawn of the Code War, focuses on the new challenges posed by cyber threats to national security. Subtitled “America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat”, it dives deep into some of the cases Carlin dealt with during his roughly 20 years in federal law enforcement for the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Division, particularly those threats directed by Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia.
There’s some value and some interest in this, explaining how individual human errors are often the key to, for example, finding an individual Daesh/ISIL “cyber jihadist” recruiter based on connections to other, less careful cyber criminals or that Chinese hackers were the ones behind a particular network intrusion for intellectual property because they didn’t always cover their tracks as well as they were capable of.
The history of cybercrime and cybercriminals traced from its humbler beginnings when computer networks were largely the realm of niche academic pursuits versus now where every aspect of our lives is intertwined with them does show again and again the human element of what it takes to hold malicious actors accountable for their actions, even when those actions are keystrokes half a world away.
But the book’s primary limitation is that, to be crass, Carlin is a cop; his insights are mainly limited to a cop’s insight of solving particular cases. It’s entertaining to read through North Korea’s attack on Sony Pictures in 2014 over their grievance of the Seth Rogen film “The Interview” because the plot included the farcical assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It reminds you how serious this attack actually was, which was obscured at the time and has mostly faded from popular memory now.
But Carlin wasn’t with the foreign-focused CIA or NSA, so his view is from the view of a cop catching incoming criminals. When focusing on other nations with bad designs on the United States, a major missing piece is what the United States itself is already doing. I say this only because I read about the Iranian cyber attacks as an example of the asymmetrical warfare they favor, but there was only one offhand reference I saw to Stuxnet, the joint U.S.-Israeli computer worm designed in the mid-Aughts to target Iran’s nuclear program and cause physical damage to centrifuges in infected facilities.
Clearly, the United States is aware of the many ways that cyberattacks can be used to target a nation’s infrastructure because we’ve done and no doubt are doing it to others. Similarly, as Carlin acknowledges, the problem with Russian election interference wasn’t so much that there was a lack of security within political parties or state election systems, although that’s accurate. The problem was that when the attacks were discovered, traced back to Russian intelligence agencies, and the information was brought to Congress, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were perfectly OK with the attacks because it meant they had a better chance for their party to win the presidency and achieve their policy goals of dismantling the welfare state, hurting unions, and entrenching voter suppression.
The United States has similarly made common cause with local political parties to continue politics with other means. We’ve been aware that someone might do the same to us, but what’s changed is having a political party wholly embrace such a foreign alliance.
You can even look at the role of propaganda and how little has changed in 70 years. During the Cold War, the CIA funded Radio Free Europe for years as anti-Communist propaganda whose radio waves could pierce the Iron Curtain. Its effectiveness compared to the Soviet equivalent Radio Moscow was that the Soviet Union had structural issues exploitable by radio broadcasts by RFE’s broadcasts, such as including less strict cultural censorship and information (or misinformation) that seemed more trustworthy than the local governments that so baldly lied about what was going on, such as Chernobyl.
However, now Radio Moscow has become Sputnik, and what makes Sputnik effective is that it can amplify 40 years of conservative ideology while being amplified in turn by them. If Radio Moscow had had the equivalent of Fox News and AM talk radio picking up its propaganda and pushing it, or if Nixon had asked the Soviets to do Watergate for him and the GOP had controlled the Senate and been fine with it, it’s hard to see what would be so different.
For that reason, the newness of what cyberattacks represent is less convincing, including what our nation’s new responses should be. Governments utilizing independent hackers to attack other countries doesn’t seem too different from 18th-century pirates getting their letters of marque to be designated privateers. Intellectual property rights seem to have changed more in the past 100 years than nations’ behavior stealing Intellectual Property from others. Propaganda, useful idiots, agent provocateur – these were all around in the past and perhaps less identifiable. But in the great ideological struggle of the Cold War, the Soviets felt compelled to side with the plight of Black Americans in an effort to undermine capitalism. Maybe if they’d helped Southern conservatives resist the Civil Rights Movement, they’d have found more willing partners.
The United States spent an unknown amount of resources to develop our cyberweapon Stuxnet, designed to physically break part of the infrastructure of Iran. But it turns out the most cost-effective worm for undermining American hegemony and infrastructure is making sure Trump and privatization-happy Republicans stay in power, by whatever means necessary.
Sometimes politics is a continuation of war with other means.