Eleanor Hall of ABC News Australia Interviews Richard Clarke
Tuesday, December 7, 2010 12:33:00
ELEANOR HALL: The White House security advisor who warned two US presidents about the Al Qaeda threat says that cyber war is the next major national security challenge.
Richard Clarke served as a counter-terrorism and security analyst for the Bush and Clinton administrations for 11 years.
His latest book warns about the danger posed by a new form of war – cyber attack – and when he spoke to me this morning from Boston he said this is war against which there is, as yet, no form of defence.
Richard Clarke what is cyber warfare and how big a threat is it?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well cyber warfare is the destruction, the disruption or the damage to real world systems affected by computer attack and it only occurs in the context of war itself or, I suppose, covert action. So it’s only ever going to occur if nations go to war with each other.
Cyber espionage, on the other hand, happens every day.
ELEANOR HALL: Well cyber attacks on systems don’t sound as threatening as conventional attacks on people. Is this really as great a threat as, say, the Al Qaeda one you warned two presidents about before the September 11th attacks?
RICHARD CLARKE: Cyber war can do many of the same things that regular war can do. It can blow up electric power grids and cause blackouts, it can cause trains to derail, it can cause pipelines to explode, refineries to explode.
In other words, this is what people don’t normally get, cyber war isn’t about ones and zeros killing each other in some theoretical fourth dimension, it’s about making things in the real world blow up.
ELEANOR HALL: So are policy makers listening to your warnings now?
RICHARD CLARKE: Oh yeah. The president understands, president Obama, understands this very, very well. The Pentagon is spending billions of dollars on it. The Pentagon just created a new tenth fleet, except the tenth fleet has no ships, it’s in cyberspace. So the United States government thinks this is very real, they’re spending a lot of money on offensive capability.
ELEANOR HALL: So how likely do you think it is that there will be a major cyber war in the near future, and if so, where and when?
RICHARD CLARKE: No more likely than whether or not there will be any other kind of war. It won’t occur simply because people have new cyber weapons, countries don’t go to war just because they have new toys.
But you have to understand that with conventional attacks, let’s say for example, hypothetically, Iran and the United States got into combat with each other. Well, Iranian missiles can’t reach the United States but Iranian cyber attacks, can.
So this gives them, even though they’re a much smaller country, almost equal footing with a super power. They can attack us from their own country, they can attack us from a third country and they can destroy things in the United States, like the power grid.
ELEANOR HALL: So how hard is it to defend against cyber attack?
RICHARD CLARKE: Very hard. This is a case of what the academics call ‘offence preference’. The offence spends a little bit of money and has a capability whereas the defence has to spend an enormous amount of money to have a modicum of defence.
ELEANOR HALL: So are countries like the US, the UK, Australia prepared for cyber warfare?
RICHARD CLARKE: Offensively, yes.
ELEANOR HALL: Defensively?
RICHARD CLARKE: Not at all, not at all.
No country really is, perhaps China’s beginning to, but no country has really figured out how to defend these networks. Every time a major power wants to get into another country’s network, it does. The defences essentially don’t work.
ELEANOR HALL: So how big of a vulnerability is that?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well if you believe you need electric power it’s quite a vulnerability. In a wartime situation when you need your rail system working, your aviation system working, your logistic system working, they won’t be if the other side chooses to attack through cyber war.
But I think, you know, that’s somewhat theoretical because you have to have war first. The much more immediate concern is industrial espionage. Because it’s, the only difference between cyber war and cyber espionage is a few key strokes.
The point is can you penetrate the network? And the answer to that is yes. And once you’re in the network you can steal all the intellectual property and this is going on every day, most companies don’t even know that it’s happening to them.
ELEANOR HALL: So who’s carrying out these attacks? Is it just sort of individual criminal gangs or is it country by country?
RICHARD CLARKE: The largest intellectual property raids are being done by the government of China which then passes the information on to government controlled companies. But there are criminal cartels that are also engaged in it.
That’s the third phenomenon. In addition to cyber war and cyber espionage, the third phenomenon is cyber crime where people are making billions of dollars by raiding bank accounts and credit card accounts.
ELEANOR HALL: So to what extent has the US intelligence capacity improved since 9/11 to enable it to detect cyber espionage, or indeed, a cyber attack?
RICHARD CLARKE: I think the US ability to detect a cyber attack has significantly increased in recent years. But that’s true only of the US military and US intelligence community. Most of the US private sector, which is all the electric power, all the banks, all the trains, all the airlines, would not know if they were being attacked.
ELEANOR HALL: And you write that cyber warfare is already generating a dangerous new dimension of instability. Is it more destabilising than conventional war?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well preparing for it could be. There’s this concept the Pentagon has which is called ‘preparation of the battlefield’ which means, I think, that they believe that they can get into other countries’ networks in peacetime to put in backdoors so that if they ever need to go in, in wartime they’ll be able to do so.
If the nation that’s the victim finds out about this they could think that you had hostile intentions.
ELEANOR HALL: So to that extent it’s destroying the trust between different countries?
RICHARD CLARKE: I think so and as we know from conventional war, when that sort of thing happens you can have accidental war.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s Richard Clarke, a former a senior White House security advisor, and you can listen to a longer version of that interview on our website.