Bottom line first: I cannot recommend Mr. Sanger’s Confront and Conceal to New York Journal of Books readers—or anyone else.
The principal reason? The author has willfully compromised the most sensitive American military and diplomatic secrets primarily for his own profit but probably from an equally misguided effort to advance a narrow partisan agenda.
There are many shocking revelations in these pages—almost to the point of obscenity. But the most appalling is that the Obama White House procured the development of the Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses, covertly deploying them in a concerted campaign to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition program.
So let us begin with a clear understanding of what just happened: Industrial sabotage is an act of war, just like a naval blockade, an aerial bombardment, or for that matter a blitzkrieg. Ever since these revelations became public, some observers have suggested—without evidence—that cyber warfare may be the next great wave of human conflict, a more gentlemanly and even benign way of limiting or even eliminating the collateral damage of conventional war. “Yo, dude. Like in Hunger Games, right?”
The cyber czars from the last two administrations have repeatedly warned that the American social and economic infrastructure depends on computers that are uniquely vulnerable to cyber warfare.
So let’s try a thought experiment. Say you were one of Iran’s ruling mullahs and had acquired unambiguous intelligence, courtesy of Mr. Sanger’s book, that the Obama White House is systematically blowing up your prized centrifuges. And only months before—maybe with Chinese assistance, maybe not—you brought down the super-secret stealth drone the Americans were using to gather strategic intelligence on Iranian secrets. Well, what would you do? What means might you choose?
Whatever your choice, Confront and Conceal offers an anatomy lesson in how to do it, an essential user’s guide in denying, disrupting, or possibly even destroying the American strategic surveillance establishment. If you are feeling particularly vengeful, the options menu conceivably extends to the long-dreaded Electronic Pearl Harbor, which suddenly seems a whole lot closer.
Now it’s okay if you still believe Mr. Sanger was only protecting whistleblowers and advancing “the people’s right to know.” But fair warning: Your opinion might well change if the power goes off, your ATMs are not working, or your iPhone suddenly wont stop searching for a signal. Should all or even some of those horrors occur, you might even wish that the author had simply knocked over the corner savings and loan out of a journalistic concern for the money supply—his own most of all.
Because this book is simply the latest in a string of media excesses that collectively strike at the heart of our freedoms, I recently testified—at my own expense and not the taxpayers’—before the House Judiciary Committee investigating media leaks.
After Mr. Sanger’s questionable and possibly indictable actions (espionage still being a crime), those issues include the routinely deplorable excesses of his employers at the New York Times.
One reason you are reading this review more than a month after the book was published is because the NYT tightly orchestrates access to books by its in-house authors. NYJB, in contrast, was denied prior access even after offering to sign a nondisclosure agreement, a standard prepublication practice. Instead, a favorable review by the well-respected author Tom Ricks appeared just as Confront and Conceal was released, timed with front page stories carefully coordinated to produce maximum buzz and inflate book sales. Even the phrase “New York Times Bestseller” is obnoxious once you understand the built-in advantages accruing to authors, reviewers, and critics who obediently toe the line of the NYT editorial policies. Good luck finding a publisher brave enough to contradict that powerful media empire.
The only good news in this grim picture is that the second information revolution is notoriously destructive of empires. But even the first information revolution—which created “the press” in the first place—still has lessons to teach about arrogance and overreaching.
Who knows: Maybe even now those countervailing forces are gathering, butterflies idly flapping their wings, creating tomorrow’s hurricanes.