By Jenni Hesterman, Special Contributor
I was honored when asked to review Dr. Brenner’s latest book, America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage, Crime and Warfare. Dr. Brenner was not only a top level official at the NSA, but the National Counterintelligence Executive for the Director of National Intelligence. He was awarded a PhD from the London School of Economics and a JD from the Harvard Law school. Dr. Brenner is one of those “deep thinking operators” that I attempt to cultivate while directing the Graduate Intelligence and National Security Studies program at American Military University. His book offers us rare insight into the cyber threat…and we would be wise to listen to his warnings and advice.
The real world events and potential cyber scenarios covered by Dr. Brenner in his book are things that keep those in the security realm awake at night, such as a cyber attack on our electric grid by a rising superpower, in this case, China. Last year, I wrote a blog about a Chinese graduate student who gathered information through open source data and, along with his professor, assessed the impact of an attack to the U.S grid and published their findings. I am not sure a complimentary undertaking could be accomplished since China is a “closed” society that has resisted the proliferation and uncontrolled use of the Internet by its citizens. What we view as a weakness, their resistance to the Internet, may in fact be a strength.
Dr. Brenner’s book covers many vulnerabilities of the Internet and social networking such as identity theft. I worked a very sensitive government identity theft case where we chased the IP address all over the globe, from country to country, then suddenly…a dead end. It was the frustrating end of a long, arduous chase. We had no idea why the information was taken, who was the perpetrator and whether we would find out in the future at a date and time of their choosing. Checkmate.
The book also covers topics from small scams that can empty bank accounts to potential attacks that could cripple Wall Street. As he states, in terms of financial transactions over the Internet, we have come too far now to turn back and our entire financial system would be crippled if we tried to control the types, amounts and method of transaction. I’ve written many magazine articles regarding the use of auction sites and “nonbanks” for criminal activities such as money laundering and fundraising. Factoring in prepaid cards, throw away phones (and now computers) – the bad guys have an advantage.
I was pleased to see Dr. Brenner’s discussion of how we field technology without security precautions. I recently explained to a group of senior executives how the Kindle can be purchased and used anonymously to transmit documents and communicate through the internet. I took them from step 1, which was the use of prepaid Amazon cards, purchased with “clean” cash, the entire way through the process of communication. Our continual blind spot is that we assume the bad guys are unsophisticated. In my research, I’ve found that if we use it, they use it. The Taliban tweet from the battlefield, the Mumbai terrorists used satellite phones. The bottom line — and I wonder if Dr. Brenner would agree — is that technology must be fielded with the assumption that the bad guys will leverage/defeat it, and the government must get involved in the development and fielding of commercial technology to protect our national security.
I enjoyed Dr. Brenner’s scenario entitled “June 2017” regarding a situation with Taiwan and a Chinese attack on our powergrid. This vignette is written in a way that exposes how decisions made now, in 2011, will render us vulnerable to this type of massive and unopposed attack. I also enjoy futurist work. In one of my speeches, I laid out a scenario for a conflict with Mexico that stems from a mass migration of its starving populace to our southern border and our civilian revolt and government response. During the question period, an audience member called me one of the “horsemen of the apocalypse”, and I thanked him for the compliment. We need to plan now for what is next.
We don’t have enough thinkers working in the realm of emergent threats. We continually posture, train and organized to fight our last war. Dr. Brenner’s book discusses the book “Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America”, written by Chinese authors. China is studying 5th Generation Warfare and how to leverage technological advances such as cyber, along with conventional tactics, to win a war against a major superpower. At the 5th Generation Warfare Education Institute, founded to study the emergent warfare that is on our doorstep, we’ve found that very few strategic thinkers/doers in our country are schooled on this theory. Some argue with us that we’ve had evolutions in warfare. During all of this philosophical debate, a rising superpower and potential threat to our national security is becoming the sole expert on how the next war will be fought. I hope that Dr. Brenner’s book will result in some new activity to study emergent methods of warfare. He also approaches the difficult question regarding cyber: “When is it war?” and I agree that we’ve already been attacked, and need a line of demarcation that when crossed, results in nation state sanctions.
I very much enjoyed Dr. Brenner’s discussion of how the Chinese watched Desert Storm 1 from afar and took notice of our technology and tactics. It is important to remember that any time we engage in conflict, we peel the tent flap back for potential enemies. Operations this year alone have exposed our drone technology as well as a high tech helicopter we had to leave behind at the bin Laden compound. Since the bin Laden operation was covered in depth by the press, HUMINT tactics were exposed, as well as listening and tracking capabilities. We should always remember the enemy is gathering, copying and countering. The :”transparency in intel” topic is also covered by Dr. Brenner, when he discusses how technology makes the art and science of espionage more difficult not only for the bad guys, but the good guys, as well.
Finally, Dr. Brenner offers sage and informed advice for our government to mitigate the damage already done, and prevent future catastrophe. I can only hope our top officials read this section of the book with an open mind, willing to avoid a “sunk cost” mentality that seems to permeate a bureaucracy.
I look forward to hearing Dr. Brenner’s comments on my assessment of his work and I encourage all of my colleagues and students to order a copy of America The Vulnerable today from Penguin Press or on your ebook.
Jenni Hesterman, is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. Hesterman is also Director of National Security and Homeland Security Studies progam at American Military University (AMU).