Tomorrow's Techno-Terrorism

by Wendy Smith

Richard Clarke was scary enough when he wrote nonfiction. In Against All Enemies, published in 2004, the counterterrorism expert who served five presidents scathingly argued that the Bush administration was so obsessed with Iraq that it had bungled the struggle against Al Qaeda; subsequent events have certainly borne him out. Deciding that “fiction can often tell the truth better than nonfiction,” Clarke used the thriller format to sketch a spooky near-future scenario in The Scorpion’s Gate (2005), which showed the former Saudi Arabia, now an Islamic republic, at the center of a deadly struggle for oil supplies between the U.S. and China. The book asked hard questions about the consequences of America’s ignorant meddling in the volatile Middle East and offered some frightening answers.

Apparently, he was just warming up. His new thriller, Breakpoint (Putnam), ensures that you will never again look at your computer, your digital toys, or even that gorgeous, super-smart little kid next door without wondering what exactly is inside them—and who put it there. The novel opens with an assault on the Atlantic beachheads that route transoceanic fiber-optic cables. The result: 75% of American Internet traffic to Europe is halted, the international financial system is crippled, and more than half of U.S. armed forces overseas can’t communicate with command at home. The year is 2012, and it seems likely that the attack was instigated by China as a warning to the U.S. not to support the newly elected Independence Party government in Taiwan. On the other hand, it could be Iran or Hezbollah, speculates Rusty MacIntyre, promoted since The Scorpion’s Gate from senior analyst to head of the U.S. Intelligence Analysis Center. Director of national intelligence Sol Rubenstein orders Rusty and his Special Projects team to find out who’s responsible: “and you’d better find out fast…I can guarantee you this attack today is not the last.”

Indeed it’s not. As Special Projects director Susan Connor and NYPD detective Jimmy Foley, (assigned to Susan’s group “to give you guys some street smarts”) begin to investigate, communications satellites are sent wandering out of the solar system, the lab that created Living Software (a self-correcting program that writes code) is blown up, and three scientists involved in Globegrid, a project to connect supercomputers around the world into one giant virtual machine, are killed by a suicide bomber. If China is behind the attacks, suggest the various experts Susan and Jimmy consult, it may be trying to derail American technological innovations that threaten to leave the People’s Republic in the dust on the information superhighway.

Opponents of outsourcing will get new ammunition for their arguments from Clarke’s creepily plausible depiction of the way the saboteurs hacked into U.S. systems: through “back doors” built into Chinese-manufactured computers and other technologies that enable those who know about them to evade security codes and make the machines do their bidding. In the book’s single nastiest image, a group of Marines who have been testing high-tech combat suits that enable them to run, throw, and lift with superhuman strength are suddenly immobilized on a desert training ground in California. “Looks like the suits gave them a big dose of painkillers and sleeping agent, then the suits froze up, turned off. I think some of the kids have OD’d,” says the doctor who designed them, on the verge of tears. Asked how this could have happened, he replies simply, “I have no fucking idea.”

Hooking up with a hacker named Soxster, Susan and Jimmy learn that someone has been recruiting outlaw computer whizzes for more than a year, offering big bucks to anyone who “can get in places, slice and dice code” and is willing to put their talents to work for an unknown employer whose intentions can’t be good. Soxster turned them down (“I don’t break the law and I like to know who I’m working for”), but others didn’t, and Special Projects eventually locates the saboteurs’ base in California near the Marine facility. It’s booby-trapped, but they’re making progress in figuring out the motives—if not the identity—of the folks who have hired all those hackers (not to mention a few members of the Russian Mafia). It’s not just about supercomputers and living software, Susan and Jimmy discover; it’s about the unsettling “enhancements” that technology is beginning to offer to human beings. “The greatest threat is what the genomics and biological sciences are doing to what it means to be human,” says former “cyberguru” Will Gaudium. He’s given up computers and gone into the winemaking business because he’s worried that the super-abilities technology can provide will be available only to the rich, creating a privileged super-race that will destroy democracy.

Off Susan goes to the Bahamas, where a secret lab is adding extra chromosomes to embryos so that wealthy clients can have custom-designed babies. As events in California, Washington, China and the Caribbean hurtle to an interconnected climax, the bad guys turn out to be closer to home than it initially seemed. Alert readers will have spotted one of the perps early on, and another villain arrives out of left field in an annoying violation of thriller etiquette. A glaring loose end that screams ‘Sequel Coming!’ could also have been more subtly handled. I doubt that Clarke aspires to write literary masterpieces, but it wouldn’t have hurt his book if the characters were a little more three-dimensional. However, his capable prose gets the job done, and his insider’s knowledge of Washington bureaucracy gives Breakpoint a few moments of much-needed humor. (After one particularly impenetrable speech by an FBI representative, a bewildered member of the Commerce Department asks, “What the hell did he just say? Is he going to arrest us?”). More importantly, his ‘It Can Happen Here’ plot asks us to think about how much we really know about the technology that increasingly dominates our lives and about how vulnerable our ignorance makes us. Richard Clarke doesn’t just want to scare us: he’d like to scare us into becoming better informed. •

from the March-April 2007 issue

'Breakpoint' ensures that you will never again look at your computer, your digital toys, or even that super-smart little kid next door without wondering what exactly is inside them – and who put it there.

Richard Clarke,
former White House
counter-terrorism chief
turned novelist.