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Former cyber and counter terrorism expert talks about how threats are identified

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Richard Clarke
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Richard Clarke has been an advisor to four presidents - working as America’s top counterterrorism official and as the nationals first cyber czar.

Tonight Clarke is in Traverse City as part of the National Writers Series.

Ben Thorp sat down to talk about his latest book, Warnings, which looks at how threats to national security are identified.

Ben: I was looking over Warnings, which is your book, can you talk about some of the ways in which you work to identify threats and the work that goes through identifying threats and then verifying things that are real national security threats and things that are not?

Clarke: In the book Warnings we talk about people who see threats before everybody else does. This frequently occurs. You have an expert, a certified expert well recognized in their field, they do a study and have empirical data and when they look at that data they see a threat. They show it around to other people sometimes other people don’t see the threat. What we talk about in the book is how you deal with that phenomena. How you find out whether the person who, alone at the time who has identified the threat, is a Cassandra, meaning that they are right, or a chicken little, meaning that they are wrong. We have a whole procedure outlined in the book for how you go about figuring out which they are.

Ben: One of the things you talk about research, particularly when it comes to issues of global warming and rising sea levels, and the work that can be done and the work that maybe can’t be done because by the time it gets done we’re already seeing changes. Can you talk about that?

Clarke: Yeah, one of the reasons people don’t agree with experts who are warning about problems is because experts can’t use the classic scientific method. The classic scientific method is to conduct an experiment and then do it again and then have somebody else do it and make sure the result is always the same. In the real world, you can’t always do that. As Jim Henson, our Cassandra in the book on sea level rise says, ‘I can’t melt Greenland three or four times to see what happens.’ The result of that is some scientists, some true to the academic method scientists, say ‘how can we be sure that you’re right? What you say could happen has never happened so we can’t replicate it in the lab.’ We call that phenomena scientific reticence. It’s one of the reasons why in many cases these experts who see things coming cannot get everybody else in their scientific community on board because the scientific method cannot be applied to it.

Ben: You raised concerns about election hacking as early as 2010. I’m wondering here in 2018 is this still something that’s a major concern?

Clarke: Yeah it’s very much a major concern. We’ve looked at all sorts of machines and had hackers go and try to hack them and in every case, they were able to do it and able to do it fairly quickly. And people say ‘well you have to get access to the machine.’ Yeah, you do, but access to the machine is not impossible to get. And when we talk about these incredibly close elections, as we’re seeing again this year in Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere, then a few votes in one key precinct not recorded or a few key votes switched can be the difference in the election.

Ben: Are there any other issues that you’re looking at that you’re saying this is something need to be paying attention to but just aren’t yet?

Clarke: I think the large issue that bothers me is that while the United States is diverted internally with all these silly partisan conflicts, China and Russia, our near-peer competitor nations, are pushing the United States out of the way in the global arena and replacing us as the predominant power in region after region. We’re just not being agile and responsive enough. They are undermining alliances that took us decades to build. Nations around the world no longer think we are reliable. Over time that’s going to have an impact on our economy and on our national security.

Ben: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Clarke: Take care.