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'Dark Territory' Examines The Long History Of Cyber War


We've been talking about terrorism a lot this evening, and now we're going to focus on what you might call a non-violent version, cyber warfare.

Just last week, the Justice Department indicted seven hackers tied to the Iranian government. Officials said they broke into major U.S. banks a few years ago and caused millions of dollars in damages. They also tried to shut down a dam in New York state.

Fred Kaplan says these sorts of attacks happen constantly. Kaplan writes about international affairs for Slate magazine, and he's author of a new book, "Dark Territory: The Secret History Of Cyber War." He joins us from New York.

Fred, thanks for joining us.

FRED KAPLAN: Thank you.

ZWERDLING: I want to go back in history a bit 'cause you tell a story that I had briefly heard and I always thought was apocryphal. You say that America's program to fight cyber war really got off the ground thanks to President Reagan and thanks to Hollywood.

KAPLAN: That's right. In June of 1983, the first weekend, Ronald Reagan is up at Camp David. And he was watching movies all the time, and one movie that he watched was "WarGames."

You might remember Matthew Broderick plays this tech whiz teenager who unwittingly hacks into the main computer of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and, thinking that he's glommed onto some new online game called "Global Thermonuclear War," almost really sets off World War III.


JAMES ACKERMAN: (As Joshua) Which side do you want?

MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As David) I'll be the Russians.

ACKERMAN: (As Joshua) Please list primary targets.

BRODERICK: (As David) Who should we nuke first?

ALLY SHEEDY: (As Jennifer) Let's see. How about Las Vegas?

BRODERICK: (As David) Las Vegas, great.

KAPLAN: And so the following Wednesday, Reagan is back in the White House, where there's a big national security meeting. It's not about this kind of thing. It was about something else.

But he can't get this movie out of his mind, so he launches into this very detailed plot summary. And people are kind of looking around, raising their eyebrows, smothering smirks, wondering what's going on here. And he turns to his top general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Vesi, and says general, could something like this really happen?

And Gen. Vesi says, I'll look into that, Mr. President. And he comes back a week later and he says Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think. And this leads, about a year later, to this first presidential directive on computer security.

So it was at this moment that the policy debates and ideas and discussions of vulnerability that are now still headline news today first took form.

ZWERDLING: So let's jump ahead in history now. We all know that hacking has become a part of life. You write that there was a huge turning point in the kinds of cyberattacks almost exactly two years ago.

KAPLAN: That's right. A couple years ago, Sheldon Adelson - who is the majority stockholder of Vegas Sands Casinos and a well-known right-wing political supporter with very pro-Israel views - made a statement at a public forum saying that if the Iranians didn't get serious on getting rid of their nuclear weapons, that maybe we ought to drop an atomic bomb in the middle of the desert and say if you don't stop this, the next bomb we drop is going to be on Tehran.

So in retaliation for that, the Iranians hacked into his casino chain, causing tens of millions of dollars' worth of damage - melting their hard drives, stealing a lot of data about Social Security numbers, and then planting on everybody's screen, don't make statements like this about weapons of mass destruction.

So this is a new wave in cyber war done not for espionage, not for money, not to get military secrets, but to affect the political speech of individuals or corporations. When you hack into a casino - you know, if you're looking for money, there's a lot of money there that you can get. The Iranians didn't take a dime. They even stole credit cards to make people feel insecure.

ZWERDLING: But they didn't go on a shopping spree.

KAPLAN: They didn't use them.

ZWERDLING: They didn't steal money from Adelson's bank account.

KAPLAN: Nope. They just wanted to affect his political speech.

ZWERDLING: Of course, the United States was behind hacking into the Iran nuclear program, right?

KAPLAN: That's right.

ZWERDLING: Which made its nuclear machinery go literally haywire.

KAPLAN: Yeah. That was the first instance we know of where someone hacked into another country's computer networks not to do damage to the computer, but to destroy physical objects.

ZWERDLING: So here's what I'm wondering. Is there any code of conduct in this era of cyberattacks? You know, most countries have signed international agreements - right? - that say, we will not drop a nuclear bomb, we will not use chemical weapons. What is happening in the world of cyber warfare?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, they are no such rules of the road. There was some talk of maybe getting together with the major cyber powers several years ago, but look, there are now 20 countries whose militaries have explicit cyber units.

Maybe you can get together in a room with Russia, China, France, Israel, the United States. How do you do this with North Korea, Iran, Syria, Pakistan? And who knows what kind of non-state actors are getting into this field?

You can count how many intercontinental ballistic missiles each side has. How do you know what kind of cyber tools and techniques one side might have developed? It's invisible.

ZWERDLING: We've been talking with Fred Kaplan about his new book "Dark Territory: The Secret History Of Cyber War." Fred, thanks so much.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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