Q&A: Festival of the Arts’ David Sanger on Cyber Warfare

David Sanger (Photo by Ralph Alswang)

In today’s media climate, there’s no rest for the weary. Sometime between covering the second summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and flying to Boca Raton this week for his appearance Wednesday at Festival of the Arts, David Sanger took some time to answer our questions on the topic of his lecture at the Cultural Arts Center: “Cyber Conflict: A New Era of War, Sabotage and Fear.”

The presentation will dovetail with his latest book, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, an account of decades’ worth of hostile actors who have used cyber weapons to disrupt and debilitate American political and financial infrastructure—and our efforts, or lack thereof, to counter these and future attacks. Sanger, a national security correspondent for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the world’s leading experts in this 21st century form of warfare. Hopefully on Wednesday night, he’ll try not to scare us too much.

Why is cyber, as your book title indicates, the perfect weapon?

The book is titled The Perfect Weapon because cyber weapons are unlike most conventional (or nuclear) weapons: They are cheap, deniable, hard to trace—and perfect for short-of-war operations. That makes them well suited to nations that are fundamentally broke: Russia and North Korea are two good examples.

How have the Obama and Trump administrations, respectively, dealt with the threat of cyberweapons? Has either fully appreciated the scope of this threat?

The Obama administration put a lot of effort into developing doctrine for both cyber defense and, as importantly, cyber offense. On the defense side, it established the Department of Homeland Security as the primary defender of the country against routine cyber attacks, and elevated U.S. Cyber Command to defend the nation from nation-state attacks—and put the U.S. on the offense. And, of course, the biggest offensive operations run by the United States happened under Obama: “Olympic Games,’’ the code name for the American-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and the operations against North Korean missile programs.

The Trump administration got off to a good start, with a homeland security adviser and White House cyber coordinator who were top notch. But the homeland security adviser was dismissed when John Bolton took over as national security adviser, and the Homeland job was given to a Coast Guard admiral with little cyber experience. The White House coordinator’s job was eliminated. This struck me as unilateral disarmament—and if there is a significant attack on the U.S. in coming years, there will be a lot of questions about why this job was eliminated.

From which countries are the next cyber threats going to arise, and why?

The big four in cyber are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, each pursuing their own national interests with different types of attacks. The Russians want to disrupt; China uses cyber to steal intellectual property for competitive purposes; North Korea and Iran both see cyber as a way to inflict cost on the U.S. in return for the U.S. sanctions against those countries. But all understand that the weapon is more useful to them as a short-of-war weapon, calibrated to avoid prompting a military response. Once they go too far, they create a whole different set of consequences—and so far they have largely respected those boundaries.

Do you think this issue is more complicated for the American public to wrap its head around than any other form of conflict, because it is so nebulous, and we can’t see it?

Absolutely. You see it in the confusion about how to characterize an attack like the one launched against Sony in 2014, which took out about 70 percent of its computing activity, or the attacks on financial institutions. Are these acts of war? Of sabotage? Are they just vandalism? Many in the U.S. are still engaged in that argument, a sign of how hard it is to put together effective defenses.

Politicians also still think it is OK to act as if this subject is too hard to understand, that it’s technical and complex. I often hear, “Oh, I’ll have to get my kids or grandkids to explain it to me.” That’s not an acceptable answer, in my mind. Imagine if, in the cold war, they had used such an excuse to avoid developing strategies for nuclear deterrence? Would that have been acceptable?

Have you any evidence that your book is getting into the right hands of the leaders and policymakers who need to read it?

Yes. It’s been widely read among the senators on the intelligence and armed services committees. I know a number of intelligence agencies that are reading it as well. But the real objective is to get the heads of ordinary Americans around the idea that nation-state conflict has changed. It took a while for people to understand that about nuclear weapons in the ‘50s. It may take longer in this case.

Sanger will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Cultural Arts Center, 201 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $30. Call 866/571-2787 or visit festivalboca.org.