Turning Science Fiction Into Reality: A Review of Dark Territory by Fred Kaplan


This article appeared in The Cyber Issue in Winter 2016.

Fred Kaplan’s Dark Territory is an ambitious book that carefully details the incentives, accidents, personal agendas, bureaucratic maneuvers, conversations, and events that led to every milestone in the history of cyber warfare—all or most of which have been thus far unknown to the general public.[1]

The book opens with an account of former president Ronald Reagan, who, shortly after watching the movie War Games, poses a harmless question to General Vessey, then the chairman of the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Could something like this really happen?” This question sets into motion an inquiry that ultimately results in the confidential national security decision directive, NSDD 145, which is the first policy on information security systems.

Using similar anecdotes of various high-ranking government officials and military personnel, Kaplan assiduously tries to uncover the motions and processes that result in current cybersecurity policy. While disclosing behind-the-scenes events and conversations, he takes us from the precarious environment of the Cold War, military operations in the Gulf under the Bush and Clinton administrations, the Y2K crisis, and the 9/11 attack and its aftermath, to the more recent instance of whistleblowing by Edward Snowden during Obama’s second term. Kaplan provides extensive details of the actors who shaped these conversations, including key personnel and how they rose within the ranks, their portfolio transitions, their connections with each other, and their opinions.

Additionally, a simultaneous narrative of the various agencies concerned with cyber warfare and their interactions with one another provide insight into how precariously cyber policy is shaped by actors with competing interests. While the intricate connections and specifications incite interest and make cyber warfare a more accessible topic, at other times they end up making the book difficult to follow.

Yet these are important events that inadvertently raise important questions. For instance, during Operation Desert Storm, the legal counselor for the NSA voices his concern about putting out an Iraqi generator remotely, as such a move would eliminate the power supply to a nearby hospital in addition to the military target the generator is attached to. This brings to light an ethical tradeoff between humanitarian concerns and strategic objectives that was never made public. The Clipper chip issue of the 1990s that forced the NSA to function under the cloak of secrecy begs another important ethical question about how much information and decisionmaking can be kept from the public under the pretext of national security. The NSA’s collection of metadata raises the issue of balancing individual privacy with so-called intrusion detection protocols. And numerous events make one wonder if private entities can truly function independently when national security is a priority. The author, however, does not delve much into these debates. In spite of their relevance to any discussion about cyberspace and warfare, these conversations remain more or less on the sidelines.

The majority of Kaplan’s focus lies on the elements and processes that comprise cyber warfare. He is successful in proving that cyberspace is all-pervasive—every sector in the economy as well as every individual is inextricably linked to it—and while this may not be palpable, cyber warfare can be exponentially more damaging to a nation than physical warfare. He shows that cyberspace is a two-way street—if the United States has access to information from the rest of the world, so does the rest of the world on America. Similarly, by providing stories of teenage hackers accessing the Pentagon’s systems and other security breaches, he repeatedly states that if the United States can exploit the vulnerabilities of rivals, it needs to be cognizant of the fact that its own systems can also be easily manipulated.

Dark Territory is a fascinating read. It does not offer opinions or resolve debates, but it objectively manages what it sets out to do, which is to unravel the history of cyber warfare through a recounting of the events, dialogue, and interactions that precipitated them.


Debashree Poddar is a second-year student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. 


[1] Fred Kaplan, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (Simon & Schuster, 2016).