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The Perfect Weapon: Recapping an Event with David Sanger

The Perfect Weapon: Recapping an Event with David Sanger

David Sanger, New York Times National Security Correspondent, October 9, 2019.

By Matthew Noles. October 28, 2019.

David Sanger, a veteran reporter for The New York Times and recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, visited Duke on October 9th to discuss current national security events, cyberwarfare, and his newest book entitled The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age. Mr. Sanger was interviewed by Professor Peter Feaver at the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy event.

Sanger explained during his visit that cyber warfare is a niche form of conflict that can largely be carried out below the threshold of conventional armed conflict, also known as  “grey zone.” As a result, nation-states are using cyber operations on a regular if not daily basis. Cyber attacks appeal to policymakers because they offer a response option that is not perceived to be as escalatory as conventional military strikes with kinetic munitions. For instance, Mr. Sanger supported this assertion by pointing towards reporting from June 2019 that claimed the Trump administration had opted for a cyber response rather than airstrikes in response to the Iranian shootdown of a United States’ drone. In addition, such cyber alternatives also offer state actors greater deniability and obfuscation than missile debris or blast craters ever will. The attribution of cyber attacks is notoriously difficult and can often require extended periods of analysis.

Sanger highlighted three characteristics of cyber weapons for the Duke audience to keep in mind: (1) the development of offensive cyber weapons is incredibly cheap relative to their advanced conventional counterparts; (2) little infrastructure is needed for the development or delivery of cyber weapons; and (3) the employment of cyber weapons shifts the defensive advantage towards states less dependent upon digital systems. It is because of these three characteristics that many foreign countries have embraced the development of cyber weapons in order to compete with conventionally superior nations such as the United States. While only nine countries in the world currently possess nuclear weapons, Mr. Sanger estimated that 35 state actors are now capable of sustaining sophisticated cyber operations. 

Notably, Sanger points out that while our nation’s cyber defenses have indeed improved with time, the exponential increase in Internet of Things devices (such as your home’s internet-connected air conditioning or refrigerator) means that the vulnerable attack surface within the United States is outpacing defensive efforts.

Beyond the topics discussed in his book, Mr. Sanger also touched on a variety of other issues ranging from his discussions with President Trump to Huawei’s 5G involvement and the United States’ ongoing efforts to extricate itself from Afghanistan. He gave a journalist’s perspective on the distinction between leakers and whistleblowers in the context of his reporting – which frequently involves the disclosure of state secrets. Sanger acknowledged that while the act of leaking classified information is indeed illegal, the duty of newspapers to publish such state secrets is linked to the Founding Fathers’ original intent for a free news media that would hold government officials accountable.

On the issue of Afghanistan, Mr. Sanger doubted the charge that the United States’ involvement in the country constituted a so-called “forever war.” Instead, he pointed to the substantial value in preserving both intelligence collection assets in the region and keeping special operations advisers in place in order to continue training the Afghan National Army. Furthermore, Sanger indirectly compared a continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan with low casualty rates to the persistent presence of U.S. forces in countries such as South Korea and Western Germany during the Cold War for stabilization and peace preservation.

Finally, during the Q&A portion of the event, Mr. Sanger addressed an interesting question regarding how the United States’ national security apparatus might reorganize itself to better deal with an increasingly prominent cyber threat landscape. He was critical of the Trump administration’s decision, during John Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, to eliminate the position of cybersecurity coordinator within the National Security Council. He believed that this was a step in the wrong direction. In addition, he lamented that there is widespread technological illiteracy amongst many members of Congress and, for comparison, that such ignorance would have been unacceptable 70 years ago in the context of a congressman being asked about nuclear strategy and the Cold War.

Matthew Noles is a Trinity senior studying Political Science and History and is a member of the Duke Cyber Team.