Interview Selects 3.20.20
Ep 9 | 3.20.20

David Sanger from NYT discussing his latest book, The Perfect Weapon.


David E. Sanger: Cyber has emerged over the past 10 years as the primary way that countries seek to undermine and compete with each other in a short-of-war way. And by short of war, I mean attack each other, spy on each other, manipulate each other using techniques that are not likely to bring about a major military conflict. And that's why the book is called "The Perfect Weapon" because cyber is cheap. It's deniable. It's easily targeted. You can dial it up, and you can dial it down. In other words, it's the opposite of a nuclear weapon. You can actually control its effects and target it very carefully. And it can sometimes be difficult to figure out where it is that an attack came from.

David E. Sanger: And so my fascination, as somebody who has covered national security for many decades, been a foreign correspondent for the Times, covered national security and foreign policy in Washington for many years, has been the emergence of a technology that is as game-changing as the invention of the airplane was, in some ways as game-changing as the invention of the atom bomb was but very different ways, as a new power of influence and a leveler because it's so cheap. It allows much weaker and smaller and broke countries to challenge far more powerful ones.

Dave Bittner: To what degree do nations respect the capabilities of each other when it comes to the cyber domain? Again, I'm thinking about with nuclear weapons. You test a nuclear weapon or even as they were used in World War II, well, that's a pretty big demonstration of the capabilities of these weapons. And it strikes me that I don't know that we've seen a similar test or a demonstration of capabilities in the cyber domain. It seems to me that it's more possibilities so far. Is that - is my perception accurate there?

David E. Sanger: Close, but not entirely. So you're absolutely right that the nuclear age began with a far larger and more fearsome demonstration of power. And it actually affected how we thought about and dealt with nuclear weapons for the succeeding 70 years because after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no value in hiding what our capability was. Everybody knew what our capability was. We knew what our capability was. But we had demonstrated it to the world. And thus, we could sort of have an open debate about how we wanted to go use that capability. And that debate ended up in a completely different place than it started, right? I mean, you had MacArthur wanting to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China. During Vietnam, as we now know, General Westmoreland wanted to bring nuclear weapons into South Vietnam in case he needed to use them in North Vietnam.

David E. Sanger: But by the late '70s and '80s, we had, basically, decided we would only use nuclear weapons as a matter of national survival. In cyber, we've never had our Hiroshima and Nagasaki moment. So what's happened is countries believe that if they talk much or demonstrate much of their cyber activities or even admit to them, that somehow, it impedes their power by revealing too much. I, actually, think the opposite is the case. It's one of the reasons it's gotten in the way of our deterrence.

David E. Sanger: Perhaps the biggest case where the issue of respecting another nation's powers have come along has been in the election hack, where President Obama thought about retaliating against the Russians when it became clear that they had been behind the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta's email and so forth. But he hesitated, as I describe in the book, because of the fear that the Russians would come back on Election Day. And when they did, they might attack the actual voting machines.

Dave Bittner: Now, one of the things that you advocate in the book is this notion of creating sort of a Geneva Convention framework for cyber arms control. Where are we when it comes to establishing those sorts of norms?

David E. Sanger: The very early stages, and most of it hasn't been terribly successful. There was an early effort that I was impressed with that was done by the United Nations, a group of experts. But that floundered about a year ago with the Russians and the Chinese getting in the way of it. The United States itself is part of the problem here. And the thought of a Geneva Convention is, initially, somewhat appealing because treaties don't work in the cyber age. There's just too many players, and many of them are non-governmental actors who don't sign treaties - you know? - criminal groups, teenagers, all sorts of patriotic actors. So having an agreement between the United States and Russia and China wouldn't get you very far.

David E. Sanger: But having a sort of understood code as the Geneva Convention tries to protect civilians in ordinary combat is another matter because while it's unenforceable, it begins to set a norm of behavior. And that norm's important. It's the reason some people get dragged up in front of the criminal court - right? - in the Hague. In the digital world, the idea of a digital Geneva Convention would be, again, to protect civilians, to sort of say what targets should be off limits. And if we were making a list, we could come up with some - election systems, the electrical grid, hospitals, nursing homes, emergency communications systems. You can think of a pretty good list. The problem with that is I suspect that even the U.S. intelligence community would object to signing the U.S. up to those because they would say, do you want to limit the president if he thinks that he can avoid a war by messing with another country's elections?

Dave Bittner: Where do you see this going? How do you see it playing out? When you look toward the horizon, where do you see - where do you think we're going to find ourselves in the coming years?

David E. Sanger: That's a really good question. This is accelerating dramatically as a weapon for states, as a defense - set of defensive measures. And the problem's growing more complex, of course, by the Internet of Things. If we think that we have 12 or 13 billion Internet of Things devices now, it'd probably be well over 20 billion by 2020 by most estimates. All of those increase the attacks base that countries can attack.

David E. Sanger: We have to think of ourselves right now as sort of at the end - where we were in air power at the end of World War I. We knew the airplane could fly. We knew that there had been some skirmishes in the air - the Red Baron, people up against the German early airplanes during World War I. But the weapon had not been decisive. It didn't become decisive until World War II. You have to think of cyber in sort of the same terms. We've seen the early skirmishes. We haven't seen the true capabilities of the weapon.

Dave Bittner: Our thanks to David E. Sanger for joining us. The book is "The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age."