General Petraeus, author Fred Kaplan dissect cyberwarfare at Visions & Voices event

May 5, 2017

Retired four-star general and former CIA director David Petraeus (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

By Matthew Kredell

General (ret.) David Petraeus and author Fred Kaplan conversed about “Cyber Wars and Global Politics” in an event presented by USC Visions & Voices at Bovard Auditorium in March.

Following introductory remarks by USC President C. L. Max Nikias, Price School of Public Policy Professor David Sloane moderated a discussion between Petraeus and Kaplan, covering the alleged Russian election hacking, the recent Vault 7 document leak, and other threats to personal and national security.

Kaplan wrote the 2016 book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War. In addition, Kaplan and Petraeus previously collaborated on the 2012 book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.

Kaplan indicated that the U.S. is much better prepared for cyber attacks than when he started the book, Dark Territory. He brought up an exercise that the NSA conducted in 1997, in which a group of 25 hackers using commercial equipment were able to hack into defense department networks over four days.

Petraeus said the surge in Iraq 10 years ago would have been hugely different due to cyber capabilities in the military today. He sees a future in which cyber training is its own military branch.

“There is enormous focus in this arena, and even when defense budgets were starting to come down, there were increases in the budgets for anything having to do with cyber warfare and security,” said Petraeus, who holds a joint faculty appointment at the USC Price School. “I think ultimately cyber command will be out from under strategic command. It will be its own military service like the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines in that it ought to be able to recruit directly and then train, educate, retain, assign, deploy and so forth.”

Despite the widespread media attention, Kaplan doesn’t think the public should be overly alarmed by the WikiLeaks’ Vault 7 release of CIA documents in March detailing how the agency conducted cyber intelligence. He stressed that these efforts are targeting specific individuals or organizations of interest to the CIA.

“The CIA bugs people, and in the digital age they hack digital communications,” Kaplan said. “This really shouldn’t be a shock. There isn’t the slightest claim, nor would there be any substantiation for the idea, that they’re listening to your conversations at home.”

In regards to Russia allegedly committing hacks of the Democratic National Committee and others, Kaplan views it as the typical cyber espionage that has gone on between the two countries for decades. The difference here was sending hacked emails back into the U.S. political system. He noted how hacks were also perpetuated against Germany and others in Europe, so he believes that the purpose was to impact the European Union rather than the U.S. presidential election.

“Their military really isn’t very good,” Kaplan said of Russia. “They don’t have any system anyone in the world is trying to emulate. Their economy is tanking. But they do have some advantages, and Putin knows how to use them, and he knows how to exploit weaknesses in the West.”

Petraeus identified an intellectual tug of war going on between advocates of greater privacy and advocates of national security.

“I think what will happen is the pendulum will swing back and forth a bit,” Petraeus said. “The relative openness about it now is actually reasonable and appropriate. If there is a major attack, people will probably allow for more intrusions. Or if it’s a period of peace, then they’re going to get more and more sensitive about the level of intrusion into their lives and policy rights. But I think that’s healthy in a country like ours.”