Book Reviews: “The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace and “The Plot to Hack America”

The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace by Alexander Klimburg, Penguin Press, (2017)

The Plot To Hack America by Malcolm Nance, Skyhorse Publishing (2016)

In The Darkening Web, author Alexander Klimburg, Program Director of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies; former Fellow of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, advisor to NATO, the European Union (EU) and international policy groups introduces us to the new world of information warfare and the current fight over the governance of the Internet.  He traces its early days from the US government’s ARPANET to its ICANN board of volunteer computer pioneers and its unusually cooperative, trust-based development into the still-open global platform. Today the Internet undergirds our financial systems, commerce, national defense, security, government agencies, as well as innovations of Silicon Valley’s social media giants: Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), Google (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), Microsoft (MSFT) and the FINTECH 100.  We examined some of these issues in our TV program “The Future of the Internet”.

Klimburg goes beyond the worries we explored regarding the Internet’s vulnerability and fragility, its commercial over-exploitation of this taxpayer-developed asset, and warns on the institutional frailty of today’s Internet, still US-based, which is an open, multi-stakeholder, neutrally accessible platform for sharing information.  Today, we are becoming aware that Russia sees the evolution of computers, communications, cybernetics and the Internet as instruments of political control, both internally and in global conflict and information cyber warfare.

We all now learn of “network effects” in aggregating power, visible in the social media dominators mentioned above and now being examined as they outclass every other form of mainstream media worldwide.  We see the evidence of Russia’s strategies of using all forms of media to serve its national purpose of weakening the USA, sowing further divisions, racial animosities, aligning with the Trump campaign slogans and how weaponizing hacked information succeeded in the 2016 election.

Klimburg examines the evolution of Russia’s goal after the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin’s domestically popular project of undermining democracies globally, intervening in Georgia, the Ukraine, Crimea, Syria while weakening NATO and the EU, backing right wing insurgents in Britain, France, Germany, Austria—all to restore the global respect for his vision of Russia as a global power.  Klimburg quotes a top Russian intelligence official Valery Gerasimov in a 1997 paper “Invisible Drawnout War” quoting Lenin, who inverted Clausewitz‘s maxim “War is the continuation of politics by other means” into the Leninist view:  “Politics is the continuation of war by other means”.  Today, Russia’s information warfare is much cheaper and more efficient than using military hardware, and is much less perceptible and demonstrably successful.

All this is becoming clearer, as US Congressional committees grill executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google and how the Russians weaponized their platforms in the 2016 election.  These Silicon Valley darlings were unprepared, missed their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, inadequate algorithms, and lack of oversight of the millions of Russian accounts, (many paid in rubles!), hackers and “bots” that ran fake news and advertising that reached 126 million US viewers.  Google has still to take down RT, Russia’s primary global propaganda channel, which is carried on YouTube to a large audience of gullible US viewers!  Clearly, these internet-based giants will henceforth be treated as “publishers” with responsibility for the content they propagate and the truthfulness and sponsors of their advertising.  There is talk of breaking up these dominant social media companies, or regulating them as public utilities.  Many proposals for how they need to change their business models and not sell their “Big data” on all their users’ information to marketers, insurance companies and other firms, as I have discussed in my editorials.

In The Plot to Hack America, Malcolm Nance, US counter-intelligence expert and author of the best-seller Defeating ISIS (2016) foretold in amazingly accurate detail all today’s news unfolding on the Russian effort to discredit Hillary Clinton. He describes how Putin, who dislikes Clinton, managed with his money and oligarch friends to charm Donald Trump into their fold.  Nance details Trump’s trips to Moscow since the 1980s, his efforts to build a Trump tower there, his real estate deals with Russian investors, as US bankers refused more loans after Trump’s serial bankruptcies.   All this is now revealed daily by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and indictments.

If you had read this book as I did in November 2016 after Trump’s surprising, even to him, election, you would have known all this and all the characters now appearing who were in the Trump orbit and campaign: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Richard Gates, Michael Flynn, as well as the names of all the Russian and US-based mobsters with whom they and Trump consorted.  You would have known that Robert Mercer, head of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, was Trump’s major backer, as well as funding Cambridge Analytica, used by Jared Kushner to target US voting groups, Breitbart’s website, Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, Kellyanne Conway and no doubt, others.

Thanks to the hero of the day, Malcolm Nance, we all now see where Mueller’s investigation is going and how its widening net includes interviewing White House insiders and Trump’s family members. The end game will likely include taking sworn testimony from the current Attorney General, Jefferson Sessions, a top Trump campaign surrogate, Vice President Michael Pence and perhaps the president himself.  The USA is heading for turbulent times, if not a constitutional crisis of Watergate dimensions.

By reading this book, at the urging of some of my key European advisors, I was forewarned of exactly how the Internet and all our media would be used by the Kremlin hackers to exploit the gullibility of US voters, so as to create today’s confusion and further divisions in our society.  We supported efforts to get the obsolete Electoral College to follow the voters’ almost 3 million votes for Hillary. We found that this group, which Hamilton though would be wise leaders who could prevent the election and a demagogue, instead were mostly insiders lined up behind Trump.

Just as Nance explained, our US standing in the world would be diminished by Trump’s withdrawal from international accords, his following of Bannon’s white supremacy promoted on Breitbart, as well as the false narrative of “nativism” in the geography of the North American continent, where the only natives are tribal peoples, some 9 million of whom populated this continent at the time of the arrival of Columbus in 1492.  Unfortunately, Bannon still has Trump’s ear and calls him regularly.

China has now emerged as the world’s leading power as Trump further abdicated the USA’s former global leadership role.  The Economist’s cover story “A Tsar Is Born” (Nov 3, 2017) describes what Malcolm Nance foretold in his book.  The Kremlin Playbook report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at Johns Hopkins University (2016) tells the same story: ” Vladimir Putin has a playbook that has worked for him two or three times and he will continue to use it”.  Meanwhile, the struggle over who will control the Internet continues at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, the venue where all the info-wars will play out in the next years.  These two books will keep investors like me and aware asset allocators up to speed on these unfolding events.