Former U.S. counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke was always known as a refreshingly blunt official (few can forget his apology to the 9/11 families for the government’s failure to avert the attacks). True to form, in a recent interview with The Smithsonian, Clarke says Chinese hackers have been systematically stealing trade secrets from American firms on behalf of Chinese and foreign companies for years. 

“I’m about to say something that people think is an exaggeration, but I think the evidence is pretty strong,” Clarke tells Ron Rosenbaum. “Every major company in the United States has already been penetrated by China.” Clarke, who served three presidents as counter-terrorism czar, now operates a cybersecurity consulting firm called Good Harbor in Arlington, Virginia. He believes that, unlike U.S. covert activities which focus upon diplomatic and military secrets, China has been actively using the same techniques to cull information to assist its companies in stealing U.S. technology.

“My greatest fear,” Clarke says, “is that, rather than having a cyber-Pearl Harbor event, we will instead have this death of a thousand cuts. Where we lose our competitiveness by having all of our research and development stolen by the Chinese. And we never really see the single event that makes us do something about it. That it’s always just below our pain threshold. That company after company in the United States spends millions, hundreds of millions, in some cases billions of dollars on R&D and that information goes free to China….After a while you can’t compete.”

Clarke’s fears are not confined to industrial espionage and the commercial losses associated with them. According to the interview, Clarke is worried about the U.S. “supply chain of chips, routers and hardware we import from Chinese and other foreign suppliers and what may be implanted in them—“logic bombs,” trapdoors and “Trojan horses,” all ready to be activated on command so we won’t know what hit us. Or what’s already hitting us.”

The article is a great read and has many other fascinating tidbits. For example, Clarke says he believes the U.S. worked in concert with Israel to launch the infamous Stutnex attack, a worm that temporarily disabled Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment facility in Natanz, and may have disrupted its operations for months if not years. 

Fascinating stuff and an easy, although disconcerting, weekend read.