This book was chosen for review because it concerns cyberwar, a topic of immediate concern to the world. Cyberwar has occurred in many documented cases and continues to be a threat. It has been prominent in current news because of the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails in connection with the 2016 elections, starkly illustrating its potential dangers. Koppel’s book is thus an excellent introduction to the subject.
Ted Koppel is a forty-two-year veteran of ABC News, where he was anchor and managing editor of Nightline from 1980 to 2005. Named by New York University as one of the top 100 American journalists of the past hundred years, he has won every significant television award.
Koppel’s thesis is that (1) cyberwar is a significant danger to the United States, (2) that we are woefully unprepared for it, and (3) that there are some measures, however modest, that can be taken in preparation. His intention in writing the book is to alert US citizens of that danger in order to encourage them to prepare as well as possible for potential cyberattacks that might affect them.
In the first chapter, “Warfare 2.0,” Koppel briefly considers a doomsday scenario in a great city, with darkness and the loss of electricity, water, food, and waste disposal. Police and medical services are unavailable. Disaster ensues. This is followed by a summary of our current reality, in which Koppel notes that cyberwarfare is already taking place and that we are indeed unprepared, noting on page 15 that “The consequences of a large-scale attack on the U. S. [electrical] grid would be catastrophic for our national security and economy.” Koppel then notes an irony: in 2008, the US–with Israel’s help–launched a successful cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program, thus establishing itself as the first to use a digital weapon.
In succeeding chapters, Koppel describes an attack with AK-47s on the Metcalf Substation in California. He explains the almost unthinkable effect of an “electromagnetic pulse” attack, mentions the August 2003 blackout of the northeast US, and discusses the US power industry at length. Decades ago, electric power in the US was distributed through small “vertically integrated” monopolies. Now, the system is extensively interconnected. There are three grids, operating with the same “supervisory control and data acquisition” systems. The systems supposedly can be accessed only at a few special entry points called “attack surfaces,” but it is clear the systems are much more vulnerable than previously believed. In fact, even a home thermostat is an attack surface because it is connected to the local power company, which in turn, is connected to the grid.
Power companies claim smugly that their systems are secure. But on page 45, Koppel notes grimly that “…the only institution with real power to decide how the power industry is protected is the power industry.” This provokes images of a fox guarding the chicken coop. An interview with a top company executive (who did not wish to be named and who minimized the risk of cyberattack) reinforced Koppel’s worry. Similarly, government officials see the possibility of cyberattack as remote, despite conflicting evidence, and they have done little by way of preparation. Nevertheless, and as Koppel notes on page 60, “The world is locked into a state of cyber dependency.” Understanding this, the insurance industry is unwilling to accept liability for any large-scale disaster. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama tried to alert the US public to the danger of cyberattack. Koppel notes that we are in danger not only from attacks by Russia, China, and North Korea, but possibly also from attacks by independents like radical Islamic terrorists.
In Part II of his book, Koppel elaborates on our unpreparedness. In Chapter 9, “Step Up, Step Down,” he points out that our critical, large power transformers are around forty years old. There are thousands of these (custom built) and the failure of even one could cause monumental disruptions. One can’t simply take a replacement off the shelf and make the repairs in a few days. It must be specially ordered (which necessitates the lost time in construction) and must be laboriously transported by special railroad cars to its destination.
The directors of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (which is discussed in Chapter 10, “Extra Batteries,”) usually seem clueless. In the chapter, a DHS official proudly notes, “We had Snowmageddon and we got through it” (Page 111). But that case is tiny compared to the disaster of a cyberattack. On the positive side, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Craig Fugate, clearly understood the problem. New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo and his Commissioner of Homeland Security, Jerome Hauer (Chapter 11, “State of Emergency”) did also. Unfortunately, most government officials do not. In a hilarious black comedy account, Rachel Baye—a research assistant for Koppel—called DHS for information on preparedness for this sort of disaster and ended up with a recording (Chapter 12, “Press Six if You’ve Been Affected by a Disaster”). Although it has helped in thousands of disasters, the American Red Cross seems more concerned with fund raising.
Part III, “Surviving the Aftermath,” addresses what preparation has taken place and what kind of preparations various groups and individuals can take. Some segments of our society are aware of the real possibility of disaster. By way of example, Koppel mentions the National Geographic Channel, although its programs are oriented more toward entertainment than reality. He spends considerable time describing individuals and groups called “preppers,” who realize they cannot depend on government or relief agencies in the case of disaster. These people have formulated plans for survival, including lists of needed food, water, and equipment. Koppel interviewed such individuals in Virginia, St. Louis, rural Missouri, and Wyoming.
Of particular interest to readers of this review is the fact that Koppel devotes three chapters, 16-18, to the Mormons. He contacted the Church’s public relations department, thinking that he didn’t need to spend much time with the Mormons, but then was invited to Utah for a visit. He contacted Orrin Hatch, who—to his surprise—arranged an interview with President Henry B. Eyring. Koppel came to Utah, saw Welfare Square and a Bishop’s Storehouse, visited with an LDS family, and discussed the Church and its welfare program with Assistant Church Historian Richard E. Turley and with Don Johnson, who is Director of Production and Activities for the program.
Koppel gives some background of the Church’s history, practices, culture, and doctrine. He says admiringly on page 185 that “…what [Mormons] have achieved is remarkable. No group of comparable size comes close to matching the Mormons’ efforts to prepare for whatever catastrophe may come.” He then quotes Stephanie Mencimer’s remarks about the Church’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, who said the Church’s relief efforts constituted “…a performance that put the federal government to shame” (Page 191).
In a fascinating chapter (16) titled “Constructive Ambiguity,” Koppel treats the question of defending one’s storage. Has there been any advice from Church leaders about using guns for defense? No. He interviewed members on the matter. One family said that if someone came to their door asking for their storage, their response would be to come take it. Koppel was impressed. Others had different opinions, indicating that they might use weapons for defense of their storage. Koppel calls the Church’s lack of advice on possible use of guns “constructive ambiguity” (Page 205).
In his summation of the entire matter in Chapters 19 and 20, Koppel notes (of course) that the LDS model cannot be replicated by others. But there are individuals and agencies within the federal government who are attempting to devise plans that individuals can use. One suggestion is to use small independent nuclear plants as sources of energy since they would not be part of the power grid. Of course, competition among Congress, the DHS, and the Central lntelligence Agency ensures that progress will be slow. Also, in the matter of any military response to a cyberattack, it would be extremely difficult to identify an attacker. Of course, there is also the concern with individual privacy, which complicates things. Koppel finishes with an Epilogue, “The Virtue of a Plan.”
For this book, Koppel has done a striking amount of research. He interviewed many people, including government and industry officials, various individual citizens, “preppers,” and others. Clearly, he has successfully defended the claims of his thesis.
Having said that, I note the book is limited because it is mainly addressed to the general public. The interested reader may wish to supplement this book with another called Cyber War by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake. Ecco (HarperCollins), 2010, 306 pages. I do not attempt a full review of that book here, but limit myself to a few comments.
Cyber War has a more technical approach than Lights Out. Clarke served in the White House for Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, as Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism (thus having considerable exposure to national security matters). He provides many more examples than Koppel by discussing cyberattacks on Estonia and Georgia. He devotes little space to the DHS, but focuses primarily on the military. The most dangerous opponent would be Russia, (a conclusion also reached by Koppel) followed by China and North Korea. The danger of cyber terrorism by Islamic terrorists, for example, is minimized, although Koppel gives it some credence.
A point made by both authors is that the US is strong on cyber offense and weak on cyber defense. A table given on page 148 in Clarke’s book compares the US, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea in cyber offense, cyber dependence, and cyber defense. At the top, North Korea gets an A; at the bottom, the US gets a D.
Koppel focuses mainly on the vulnerability of the power grid; Clarke takes it further by discussing the vulnerability of the Internet and our defense capabilities (and in particular, the Department of Defense). He notes, as does Koppel, the weaknesses and lack of action of the federal government. For example, there is no government agency empowered to defend banking, transportation, or the power grid. Both authors agree that leaders in the electrical power industry are remarkably defensive and short-sighted about the industry’s safety.
Clarke addresses the possibility that cyberwarfare might be accompanied by physical warfare and then remarks that the former would usually be sufficient to do the job of wiping out an enemy. His experience in war gaming in the Pentagon serves him well in considering various scenarios. Koppel’s plan, discussed at the end, considers mainly preparation by the people for a cyberattack. Clarke’s, on the other hand, treats what might be done by the government to forestall one. To that end, he even speaks of banning cyber war. This sounds as ridiculous as banning nuclear weapons, but he makes a fairly compelling case for it.
After the most recent presidential election, it is appropriate to mention President Donald Trump’s attitude toward cyberwarfare. From what I can find on the Internet, it appears (a) that no one is really sure what it is, but (b) it seems to be entirely offensive (i.e., it threatens possible opponents with cyberattacks). We are clearly in for an uncertain and dangerous future. From that standpoint, Koppel’s recommendations for individual preparation—as limited as they may be—seem the best option for the future.
Finally, it is worth re-emphasizing the extreme concern touched on at the beginning of this review and that pervades the book: we are in danger. We are at the mercy of a host of enemies who might, at any time, launch a cyberattack. To top it off, we are—as I said at the beginning—woefully unprepared. This is a good time to alert our national leaders to the potential dangers and also to review our own preparation measures.
I strongly recommend this book to the citizens of the United States.
Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2017) "Book Review: Lights Out by Ted Koppel," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 1 (Spring 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonLightsOut.html, accessed <give access date>.
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