The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age

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9780451497901: The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age
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“An important—and deeply sobering—new book about cyberwarfare” (Nicholas Kristof, New York Times), now updated with a new chapter.

The Perfect Weapon is the startling inside story of how the rise of cyberweapons transformed geopolitics like nothing since the invention of the atomic bomb. Cheap to acquire, easy to deny, and usable for a variety of malicious purposes, cyber is now the weapon of choice for democracies, dictators, and terrorists. Two presidents—Bush and Obama—drew first blood with Operation Olympic Games, which used malicious code to blow up Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and yet America proved remarkably unprepared when its own weapons were stolen from its arsenal and, during President Trump’s first year, turned back on the United States and its allies. And if Obama would begin his presidency by helping to launch the new era of cyberwar, he would end it struggling unsuccessfully to defend against Russia’s broad attack on the 2016 US election.

Moving from the White House Situation Room to the dens of Chinese government hackers to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger reveals a world coming face-to-face with the perils of technological revolution, where everyone is a target.

“Timely and bracing . . . With the deep knowledge and bright clarity that have long characterized his work, Sanger recounts the cunning and dangerous development of cyberspace into the global battlefield of the 21st century.” —Washington Post

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About the Author:

DAVID E. SANGER is national security correspondent for the New York Times and bestselling author of The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal. He has been a member of three teams that won the Pulitzer Prize, including in 2017 for international reporting. A regular contributor to CNN, he also teaches national security policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Mary Louise Kelly (NPR): Is there a Stuxnet for North Korea?
John Brennan (CIA director under President Obama): [Laughter] Next question.
—December 2016
 
In the spring of 2016, North Korea’s missiles started falling out of the sky—if they even made it that high.

In test after test, Kim Jong-un’s Musudan missile—the pride of his fleet—was exploding on the launch pad, crashing seconds after launch, or traveling a hundred miles or so before plunging prematurely into the Sea of Japan. For a missile that Kim imagined would enable him to threaten the American air base on Guam and form the technological basis for a larger missile that could reach Hawaii or Los Angeles, the failures were a disaster.
All told, Kim Jong-un ordered eight Musudan tests between mid-April and mid-October 2016. Seven failed, some spectacularly, before he ordered a full suspension of the effort. An 88 percent failure rate was unheard-of, especially for a proven design. The Musudan was based on a compact but long-range missile the Soviets had built in the 1960s for launching from submarines. Its small size but high power made it perfect for Kim’s new strategy: shipping missiles around the country on mobile launchers and storing them in mountain tunnels, where Ameri­can satellites would have trouble finding them.

As part of his effort to boost the range and lethality of the North’s missile fleet, Kim had invested heavily in modifying the Soviet engines. The Musudan was far more complex than the Scud, the short-range missiles the North had made billions selling to Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, among other nations. Developing the Musudan technology was critical for Kim: He hoped it would pave the way for a whole new generation of single-stage and multistage missiles. With those in his arsenal, he could make good on his threat that no Ameri­can base in the Pacific—and ultimately no American city—would be beyond his reach.

The North had been in the missile-launching business for a long time and had gained a reputation for mastering the art. So the serial run of Musudan failures in 2016—three in April, two in May and June, then two more in October, after the North had taken a pause to figure out what was happening to them—was confounding. The his­tory of missile testing suggested that everyone suffered a lot of failures in the beginning, then figured it out and made things work. That’s what happened during the race between the United States and the So­viet Union to build intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1950s and ’60s, an era marked by many spectacular crashes before the engineers and missileers figured out the technology. The Musudan experience reversed the usual trend. After years of successful tests of other missiles, it was as if North Korea’s engineers forgot everything they’d learned.

Kim and his scientists were highly aware of what the United States and Israel had done to the Iranian nuclear program, and they had tried to insulate themselves from the same kind of attack. But the high failure rate of the missiles forced the North Korean leader to reas­sess the possibility that someone—maybe the Americans, maybe the South Koreans—was sabotaging his system. By October 2016, reports emerged that Kim Jong-un had ordered an investigation into whether the United States had somehow incapacitated the electronic guts of the missiles, perhaps getting inside their electronics or their command-and-control systems. And there was always the possibility that an in­sider was involved, or even several.

After each North Korean failure, the Pentagon would announce that it had detected a test, and frequently would even celebrate the mis­sile’s failure. “It was a fiery, catastrophic attempt at a launch that was unsuccessful,” a Pentagon spokesman told reporters in April 2016, after the first full test of the Musudan, timed to celebrate the birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung. When subsequent attempts failed, the official news release from the Pentagon included dryly worded boilerplate that “The North American Aerospace Defense Command de­termined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.” The statements never speculated about what went wrong.

But there was a lot of speculation inside the Pentagon, the NSA, and the White House, among the select group who knew about the classified US program to escalate cyber and electronic attacks against North Korea, with a particular focus on its missile tests. Each explo­sion, each case of a missile going off course and falling into the sea, prompted the same urgent question: “Was this because of us?”

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