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Bye, cyberczar Clarke – thanks for everything

A blinkered and benighted career heads into the twilight

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Opinion The retirement of Richard Clarke is appropriate to the reality of the war on terror. Years ago, Clarke bet his national security career on the idea that electronic war was going to be real war. He lost, because as al Qaeda and Iraq have shown, real action is still of the blood and guts kind.

In happier times prior to 9/11, Clarke -- as Bill Clinton's counter-terror point man in the National Security Council -- devoted great effort to convincing national movers and shakers that cyberattack was the coming thing. While ostensibly involved in preparations for bioterrorism and trying to sound alarms about Osama bin Laden, Clarke was most often seen in the news predicting ways in which electronic attacks were going to change everything and rewrite the calculus of conflict.

September 11 spoiled the fun, though, and electronic attack was shoved onto the back-burner in favor of special operations men calling in B-52 precision air strikes on Taliban losers. One-hundred fifty-thousand U.S. soldiers on station outside Iraq make it perfectly clear that cyberspace is only a trivial distraction.

Saddam will not be brought down by people stealing his e-mail or his generals being spammed with exhortations to surrender.

Clarke's career in subsequent presidential administrations was a barometer of the recession of the belief that cyberspace would be a front effector in national security affairs. After being part of the NSC, Clarke was dismissed to Special Advisor for Cyberspace Security on October 9th in a ceremony led by National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and new homeland security guru Tom Ridge. If it was an advance, it was one to the rear -- a pure demotion.

Instead of combating terrorists, Clarke would be left to wrestle with corporate America over computer security, a match he would lose by pinfall. Ridding the world of bad guys and ensuring homeland safety was a job for CIA wet affairsmen, the FBI, the heavy bomb wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base -- anyone but marshals in cyberspace.

Information "Sharing" and Cruise Missiles

The Slammer virus gave Clarke one last mild hurrah with the media. But nationally, Slammer was a minor inconvenience compared to relentless cold weather in the east and the call up of the reserves.

But with his retirement, Clarke's career accomplishments should be noted.

In 1986, as a State Department bureaucrat with pull, he came up with a plan to battle terrorism and subvert Muammar Qaddafi by having SR-71s produce sonic booms over Libya. This was to be accompanied by rafts washing onto the sands of Tripoli, the aim of which was to create the illusion of a coming attack. When this nonsense was revealed, it created embarrassment for the Reagan administration and was buried.

In 1998, according to the New Republic, Clarke "played a key role in the Clinton administration's misguided retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which targeted bin Laden's terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan." The pharmaceutical factory was, apparently, just a pharmaceutical factory, and we now know how impressed bin Laden was by cruise missiles that miss.

Trying his hand in cyberspace, Clarke's most lasting contribution is probably the new corporate exemption in the Freedom of Information Act. Originally designed to immunize companies against the theoretical malicious use of FOIA by competitors, journalists and other so-called miscreants interested in ferreting out cyber-vulnerabilities, it was suggested well before the war on terror as a measure that would increase corporate cooperation with Uncle Sam. Clarke labored and lobbied diligently from the NSC for this amendment to existing law, law which he frequently referred to as an "impediment" to information sharing.

While the exemption would inexplicably not pass during the Clinton administration, Clarke and other like-minded souls kept pushing for it. Finally, the national nervous breakdown that resulted from the collapse of the World Trade Center reframed the exemption as a grand idea, and it was embraced by legislators, who even expanded it to give a get-out-of-FOIA-free card to all of corporate America, not just those involved with the cyber-infrastructure. It passed into law as part of the legislation forming the Department of Homeland Security.

However, as with many allegedly bright ideas originally pushed by Richard Clarke, it came with thorns no one had anticipated.

In a January 17 confirmation hearing for Clarke's boss, Tom Ridge, Senator Carl Levin protested that the exemption's language needed to be clarified. "We are denying the public unclassified information in the current law which should not be denied to the public," he said as reported in the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News.

"That means that you could get information that, for instance, a company is leaking material into a river that you could not turn over to the EPA," Levin continued. "If that company was the source of the information, you could not even turn it over to another agency."

"It certainly wasn't the intent, I'm sure, of those who advocated the Freedom of Information Act exemption to give wrongdoers protection or to protect illegal activity," replied Ridge while adding he would work to remedy the problem.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Clarke.

© SecurityFocus Online

George Smith is Editor-at-Large for VMYTHS and founder of the Crypt Newsletter.

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