“But you now have it, and if you’re a computer whiz you can take it apart and you can say, ‘Oh, let’s change this over here, let’s change that over there.’ Now I’ve got a really sophisticated weapon. So thousands of people around the world have it and are playing with it. And if I’m right, the best cyberweapon the United States has ever developed, it then gave the world for free.”
The vision Clarke has is of a modern technological nightmare, casting the United States as Dr. Frankenstein, whose scientific genius has created millions of potential monsters all over the world. But Clarke is even more concerned about “official” hackers such as those believed to be employed by China.
“I’m about to say something that people think is an exaggeration, but I think the evidence is pretty strong,” he tells me. “Every major company in the United States has already been penetrated by China.”
“The British government actually said [something similar] about their own country. ”
Clarke claims, for instance, that the manufacturer of the F-35, our next-generation fighter bomber, has been penetrated and F-35 details stolen. And don’t get him started on our supply chain of chips, routers and hardware we import from Chinese and other foreign suppliers and what may be implanted in them—“logic bombs,” trapdoors and “Trojan horses,” all ready to be activated on command so we won’t know what hit us. Or what’s already hitting us.
“My greatest fear,” Clarke says, “is that, rather than having a cyber-Pearl Harbor event, we will instead have this death of a thousand cuts. Where we lose our competitiveness by having all of our research and development stolen by the Chinese. And we never really see the single event that makes us do something about it. That it’s always just below our pain threshold. That company after company in the United States spends millions, hundreds of millions, in some cases billions of dollars on R&D and that information goes free to China....After a while you can’t compete.”
But Clarke’s concerns reach beyond the cost of lost intellectual property. He foresees the loss of military power. Say there was another confrontation, such as the one in 1996 when President Clinton rushed two carrier battle fleets to the Taiwan Strait to warn China against an invasion of Taiwan. Clarke, who says there have been war games on precisely such a revived confrontation, now believes that we might be forced to give up playing such a role for fear that our carrier group defenses could be blinded and paralyzed by Chinese cyberintervention. (He cites a recent war game published in an influential military strategy journal called Orbis titled “How the U.S. Lost the Naval War of 2015.”)
Talking to Clarke provides a glimpse into the brand-new game of geopolitics, a dangerous and frightening new paradigm. With the advent of “weaponized malware” like Stuxnet, all previous military and much diplomatic strategy has to be comprehensively reconceived—and time is running out.
I left Clarke’s office feeling that we are at a moment very much like the summer of 2001, when Clarke made his last dire warning. “A couple people have labeled me a Cassandra,” Clarke says. “And I’ve gone back and read my mythology about Cassandra. And the way I read the mythology, it’s pretty clear that Cassandra was right.”