Shane Harris (a senior writer at Foreign Policy magazine) follows his unnerving and prize-winning book The Watchers with a similarly discomfiting study of the current state of the United States' ever-growing efforts to fight the next major war--a cyberwar potentially equal to nuclear war in its threat to the global electronic infrastructure that supports everyone from farmers to Wall Street financiers. With a cast of characters straight out of contemporary spy thrillers, @War untangles the many acronym-laden agencies and their "inscrutably" named initiatives and amounts to a history of the American government's fifth dimension of warfare (after land, sea, air and space).
Harris follows math/quantum physics geek Bob Stasio into Army ROTC and then the NSA's SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) Section to intercept Iraq insurgents' cell and text messages--just like he saw it done in his favorite TV show, The Wire. As head of the NSA and, later, director of National Intelligence, Navy vice-admiral Mike McConnell interrupted a Booz Allen career to cajole presidents to beef up cyber-security. Keith Alexander, a West Point classmate of Gen. David Petraeus, became the first top dog of the United States Cyber Command. Under these men, the budgets for the United States' global cyber-sleuthing and -offensives rapidly ratcheted up during both the Bush and Obama administrations.
In addition to the well-known NSA, CIA and DHS umbrella agencies, Harris explores their more clandestine special surveillance groups, like the NSA's elite hackers TAO (Tailored Access Operations); RTRG (Real Time Regional Gateway), a kind of "Google for the new soldier-spies"; and DITU (Data Intercept Technology Unit), the FBI's version of SIGINT. He describes the numerous U.S. defensive and offensive cyber operations with code names like Pinwale, Nevershakeababy, Starburst, Buckshot Yankee and Stuxnet--the latter a computer worm designed to disable Iranian nuclear reactors.
With companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft sharing their billion e-mail accounts; Netflix, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube providing user information; and Verizon, AT&T and Sprint divulging phone data, the government's cyber warriors seem to be able to know just about everything about everybody. But, as Harris points out, all this vast metadata may not be enough to prevent an attack from the other side--whoever that might be (China, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Russia or renegade Belarusian hackers). In this very lively overview of the fifth dimension of war, he suggests that cyberspace should be managed like any other potential battlefield, where civilian-directed military oversight of its myriad pieces would serve us better than the current hodge-podge of public/private data collecting, spying and hack-attacking. In Harris's view, we don't need an Edward Snowden to expose the reach of the combatants, we need a unified approach to prevent and contain the inevitable conflict.
Bruce Jacobs' review was originally published in Shelf Awareness.