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Book Review: Richard Clarke’s Breakpoint

I got my advanced copy of Richard A. Clarke’s newest novel, Breakpoint, and devoured it. Here’s my review.

Breakpoint captured my imagination in the first pages, and completely possessed me for the next 300. The story, set in the year 2012, describes a terror attack on the United States’ critical infrastructure with unexpected twists. An odd-couple of two unconventional investigators from the U.S. Intelligence Analysis Center are tasked to find the people responsible in just a few days, before the President launches a full-scale military campaign against an unconfirmed enemy.

As the story unfolds, the investigators race to centers of high-tech around the country, finding clues at MIT, NASA and the new million square foot Googleplex building.  Techies and geeks will be very turned on by this book, but the story is gripping even to the non-technophile.

The book is especially fun and frightening as Clarke weaves a convincing story from technology announcements that have already been made, like the proposed massive Google building announced in 2005, using nerves to connect artificial limbs to the brain, exoskeleton fighting suits that give a man superman-like abilities, and intelligent video systems that can interpret human behavior. All of these technology advances are already here, and they play a role in the book. The reader will learn loads of interesting tidbits, like how many bombs it takes to cut transatlantic telecom lines, the dependence of our utilities on unprotected SCADA systems, and how many people drink Balvenie in Washington.

But the realism of the technology also makes the book frightening. Coupled with Clarke’s rich experience from over 30 years in and around the White House and national security, the technology comes alive in unexpected ways.  During a break in the action, investigator Susan Connor turns to her partner, Foley, and expressed something that many of us in the security field feel. She said, "This stuff gets me out of bed real early because it matters. It matters more than just about me and my bank account."

When you stop and think how important it is, and consider Clarke’s insider information about national security, and all of the technology advancements, it gets at you. Other novelists write political thrillers and you say "Wow, he has great imagination." Clarke writes and you say "Holy crap! That could really happen. We have to do something!"

Richard Clarke is trying to do something. When Clarke was asked by President George W. Bush to lead the President’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board after 9-11, he faced a challenged that would require public agencies and private businesses to share information and efforts in a way never done before. This book and his others, and the work done by his firm Good Harbor Consulting all focus on stopping some monumental tragedies that are very real possibilities. The need for our attention is urgent and we are almost entirely in control of how much damage the threats will inflict, if we act in time.

Critics might call Clarke a fear-monger or Cassandra, but those of us near technology and security understand how real the threat is, and how close. Novels like Breakpoint, while entertaining, also can serve as a call to action. That call for action, for change, is what drives me.  My discussion site, SecurityDreamer.com, tries to generate the right level of awareness and constructive critique of the security industry to advance that industry and make the world a better place. Ultimately we all need to find that balance between security and society. Investigators Connor and Foley explore the edges of that balance and the extremists who, even though they may support some honorable principles, upset that balance.

Richard Clarke is certainly hitting his stride as a novelist, and helping all of his readers see that security and technology are tools in our toolbox for building a great society. We only have to use the tools in a civilized way.

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