By Brian Knight
LETHAL CODE tells the shocking and frighteningly possible story of a massive, anonymous cyber-attack on the United States by an unknown enemy and the unforgettable men, women, and children who fight back against the invisible invasion.
Thomas Waite’s new novel, LETHAL CODE, is available now, and Mr. Waite is here to talk about it.
Tell us a bit about LETHAL CODE.
Sure. Back in 2012, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a startling speech about U.S. vulnerability to cyber warfare. He said that our country could face a “cyber Pearl Harbor” attack that would cause massive physical destruction and loss of life. LETHAL CODE is essentially a fictional, yet plausible, novel about such a horrific scenario. In my book, unknown terrorists have crippled the nation’s power grid and brought our country to its knees. Widespread panic and violence ravage the country and the terrorists issue their ultimatums and vow an apocalyptic reckoning.
The heroine in LETHAL CODE is Lana Elkins, head of a major cyber-security company—and former top NSA operative—who returns to her roots to spearhead the Agency’s frantic efforts to combat the enemy’s onslaught on its own terms. While she and her superiors take action to infiltrate a terrorist hotbed overseas, much closer to home ruthless jihadists with a nuclear bomb hijack a busload of schoolchildren—including her own daughter—and race toward a rendezvous with Armageddon in America’s largest city.
LETHAL CODE isn’t meant to just be a fast-paced cyber-thriller; it is a cautionary tale for a public largely unaware of a potential cyber war of cataclysmic proportions from an unseen enemy. I did a lot of research and interviewed quite a few experts for this novel. So while LETHAL CODE is a work of fiction, most of the technologies, cyber attack vulnerabilities and cyber war scenarios are based on facts. The novel is the first of a new series of cyber-thrillers. I am currently working on finishing the second.
What is it about the cyber-thriller genre that attracts you?
A number of things. First, I worked many years in the field of technology, including as an entrepreneur that started, built, and sold my own company. I am also on the board of, and an advisor to, a number of technology companies today. I have come to know a lot of people in the business and what they are working on (some of which I’m not allowed to disclose) and I find it fascinating. So obviously I love the field, especially because it is one that is constantly undergoing rapid change that affects all of our lives.
Second, I have always enjoyed novels that both educate and entertain. Whether it was John le Carré, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy or any number of other authors, I loved learning about new things while at the same time reading a terrific story. Getting an education about espionage and the British intelligence services; biotechnology and paleontology; or the military and nuclear submarines while at the same time being taken on an exciting journey was exactly what I wanted.
And third, I find the emerging area of cyberspace to be a rich canvas upon which one can craft a thrilling tale. This area of technology is—sorry for the pun—moving at light speed and it is a fun challenge to do my best to keep up to date. To be clear, I’m not writing cyber thrillers because I think that’s where there is a great market opportunity. I simply love writing in this genre.
The synopsis for LETHAL CODE is scary because it seems all too possible. Do you think that kind of cyber attack will be the way of warfare in the future?
That’s a great question. I don’t want to spoil the novel for those who haven’t read it, but let’s just say that LETHAL CODE is one of a number of worst-case scenarios. I certainly do expect that we will see cyber attacks as an increasing component of warfare in the future versus what is called “kinetic,” or conventional, attacks.
In fact, there have been quite a number of cyber attacks already, and I’m not talking about cyber security breaches like those against eBay, Target, or the so-called “Heartbleed” bug that created a serious vulnerability in the encryption technology used to protect many of the world’s major websites and remained undiscovered for more than two years.
Instead, I am talking about cyber attacks like Stuxnet. Without getting too technical, Stuxnet is considered the first malware that spied on and subverted industrial systems. It is believed that Stuxnet was created by U.S. and Israeli agencies to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities—specifically at Natanz. It has been reported that Stuxnet destroyed roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges by causing them to spin out of control. There have been many others, of course, sometimes with colorful names like “Titan Rain” and “Moonlight Maze.” One can only imagine the number that we don’t know about.
It is also well known that a number of countries are actively launching cyber attacks against the U.S. Most notoriously are the Chinese, whose hackers have not only gone after the networks of high-profile government targets like the Pentagon, but more recently have infiltrated more obscure federal agencies, like the Government Accountability Office, or GAO. Why? Because the GAO examines military, intelligence, and economic programs and has all the information on security clearances and who has applied for them.
You may recall that back in May the U.S. Justice Department indicted five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on charges of cyber espionage, the first charges of cyber espionage against a nation-state ever. And in July another Chinese citizen living in Canada was indicted for allegedly stealing aircraft and weapons systems data from major U.S. defense contractors.
Other nations are involved in cyber espionage and attacks as well, notably Russia, Iran, and North Korea. And as the Edward Snowden disclosures have made clear, the U.S. is quite active as well. The fact is we’re just seeing the beginning of what lies ahead.
So yes, I do think we will see an increasing use of cyber attacks in future wars. You could say we have moved from the Cold War to the Code War.
Please tell us a bit about yourself; who you are, where you came from, the things that keep you up at night, and the things you enjoy.
Well, I was born in the seaside town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, once home to the authors John Updike (who was a patient of my Dad, which enabled me to build a nice collection of signed first edition novels I prize to this day), Adele Robertson, John Norton, and the poet Anne Bradstreet. Being the fifth of six children, there were always a lot of books around when I was growing up. I read most all of the usual classics by authors like Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, P.D. Eastman, and others. Later I read authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Jack London, and Robert Louis Stevenson. And so I developed a love of reading and started writing stories that, fortunately, I kept to myself.
In my teens I took up sports: skiing, hockey, tennis, and especially soccer. I went on to be co-captain of my high school soccer team and was the team’s highest scorer. But honestly, what I remember best were the English courses I took during those years. I distinctly remember that it was during a period when I was reading such authors as J.D. Salinger, Herman Hesse, and Kurt Vonnegut that I really decided I wanted to become an author someday.
And so I went off to college and majored in English Literature. Naturally by the time I graduated I had read an awful lot of books spanning a considerable period of time—and I may have been the only one in my class that actually loved Milton’s Paradise Lost! In terms of novels that have influenced my life the most, the list is rather long: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, Invisible Man, U.S.A. (trilogy), Lord of the Flies (to name a few). I think they gave me a good basis of not only understanding good writing, but also the varied styles and genres of modern fiction. In fact Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is a great example of a novel written in spare, tight prose that later undoubtedly influenced countless crime and pulp fiction novels.
Who are some of your influences, old and new? Who inspired you to write, and which authors or books inspired you to write what you do?
Well obviously I was strongly influenced by just reading so many books in my life. That said, while I certainly admire the classics like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—perhaps one of the best novels ever written—I did find myself drawn to more tightly written, exciting stories. Over time, I developed a particular appreciation for fast-paced thrillers and mysteries. In addition to John le Carré, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancy, I loved reading books by authors such as Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Robert Ludlum, Thomas Harris, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King, Fredrick Forsyth, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Scott Turow, and John Grisham. These writers, and others, are authors who have produced novels in this genre that I really admire. Their styles are different, of course, but they all have written exciting and engaging stories and they most definitely inspired me to write what I do.
As far as who inspired me to write, I owe a lot to a college professor who took me under his wing and, though a tough critic, was very kind, constructive, and encouraging. I would frequently stop by his office, basically pleading for him to help me improve my writing. Fortunately he seemed flattered, and not irritated, by my many visits.
After graduation I needed a job, and after being turned down by every publishing house in New York, that’s when I started working in the technology field. Whenever I went on vacation or could eek out some free time, I would almost always read the latest novels by the great thriller writers at the time.
Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Anything I missed that you would like to share?
Yes, just one more thing. In my research for LETHAL CODE, I was in contact with a number of experts, including some very senior former government officials who’ve read advance copies of my novel. I have to admit I was surprised by how many of them thanked me for providing essentially a “public service announcement.” Indeed, I’ve dedicated LETHAL CODE “To the men and women who work tirelessly in anonymity defending the citizens of the U.S. against cyber attacks every day.” So while I would like readers to find this an entertaining thriller, I also hope it will illuminate the very real dangers our nation now faces.
Thomas Waite was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts. His debut novel, TERMINAL VALUE, was critically praised and reached #1 in Contemporary Books, #1 in Contemporary Fiction, #1 Paid in the Kindle Store, and #1 in Kindle Store Suspense at Amazon. LETHAL CODE is his first in a series of cyber-thrillers. Waite is the board director of, and an advisor to, technology companies in the online security, media, data analytics, cloud computing, mobile, social intelligence, and information technology businesses. His non-fiction work has been published in a number of publications, including The New York Times and the Harvard Business Review. Waite received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was selected by the English Department to participate in an international study program at the University of Oxford. He now lives in Boston.
To learn more about Thomas, please visit his website.