Richard Clarke famously warned his superiors in the Clinton and Bush White Houses about the destructive potential of a small terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden. To little avail.
So the world took notice last year when he published his latest admonition, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What To Do About It.
Clarke, who will deliver the penultimate lecture in the University of Rhode Island's "Are You Ready For the Future?" series on November 29 (7:30 pm at Edwards Auditorium, and live at uri.edu/hc), says a hostile nation could inflict major damage on the United States with a 15-minute cyber attack.
Oil refinery explosions, colliding trains, the destruction of our financial system. He sounds a shrill alarm. Maybe too shrill.
Cybersecurity is, without a doubt, a significant concern. The United States is a heavily wired country. Our most basic infrastructure — communications, the power grid, the water supply — are vulnerable to cyber attack. And the public is only dimly aware of the threat.
Rhode Island Congressman James Langevin, among others, makes a convincing case that we must do more to protect ourselves.
But there are significant flaws in Clarke's analysis. Among them: he focuses heavily — too heavily — on the threat posed by nation-states like China. Yes, foreign governments are best positioned to deliver the sort of spectacular blows he envisions in Cyber War. But there is little reason to think that they actually will.
China's economy is deeply intertwined with our own. Short of total war, why would the country engage in a full-scale cyber attack on the United States? Clarke has not provided a convincing answer to the question.
Indeed, shutting down American computer networks would limit China's ability to engage in the sort of largescale theft of American intellectual property — pharmacology, nanotechnology, and the like — that Clarke so eloquently describes in his book.
Of course, images of lethal clouds of chlorine gas drifting from chemical plants and airplanes crashing to the ground serve a function: they can scare us into action. But fear is a dangerous spur.
It can mean an overweening nationalism. It can mean a knee-jerk security state. And putting heavy restrictions on the Internet — where openness is an organizing principle and a font of great innovation — is a particularly fraught enterprise.
Ramped-up security can also mean a worrisome intrusion on privacy. Clarke, himself, is aware of the "Big Brother" concern. As such, he suggests that private industry rather than government oversee one of three major defense initiatives he lays out in his book: scanning every online communication that cuts through the United States for malware.
But as Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith suggested in a review of Cyber War in The New Republic last year, Clarke's sketch of hostile nation-states prepared to inflict cataclysmic damage on the United States almost begs for a government security apparatus of a scale and reach that would make most Americans uncomfortable.
Of course, it's not easy to dismiss the need for stronger oversight, particularly when one considers a threat that Clarke dismisses too quickly in his book — that of terrorist groups like his bête noire, Al Qaeda.