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Friday, June 22, 2018

The Book That Predicted Election Tampering

It has been 17 years since I began writing The China Conspiracy and 15 years since its release. This summer the cover has been updated and a new Foreword has been added that tells the story of how I conceived of the idea of election tampering.

You see, before I became a full-time writer, I had established two computer companies in the Washington, DC area. The first was oriented toward training in the workplace, and the second involved applications development and cyber tools. My clients included the Secret Service, CIA and the Department of Defense.

But my favorite assignment was working as a contractor to detect Medicare fraud and abuse where I worked with a team of auditors. Together, we dreamed up ways in which criminals could defraud the federal government and then we developed programs that could catch them if they attempted it. Our efforts recovered millions of dollars and sent a few to prison.

One day in late 2000, I was having lunch with my coworkers in Virginia. Everyone’s eyes were riveted on televisions with live streaming of Florida’s recount. As the officials held up pregnant and dimpled chads and debated the voters’ intentions, I mentioned that it was ludicrous to still be using such an antiquated system when technology had advanced so far. But as soon as I said the words, we all looked at one another with the same thought: how easy it would be to rig an election.

As the weeks passed by, we plotted how it would be done and how the government could stop such an attack. We had been trained to think like criminals, from the initial motivation to how the crime would unfold—and the critical ways in which they would almost invariably screw it up so they could be caught. It was astonishingly simple to accomplish; all it needed was access to one voting machine—either remotely or in person—and using the same wireless technology that is used today to update computers, mobile devices and even cable and satellite TV, we could replicate the programming to every other computer. We even knew how to erase the programming afterward so changes to votes would not leave a trail—a trail being the fatal flaw.

We were not the only ones raising awareness, though. Universities including Princeton and Johns Hopkins were also demonstrating how easily voting machines could be manipulated.

Who would be motivated to do such a thing? Anyone that wanted to control government officials. By selecting individuals soft on certain issues or hard on others, the criminal could cherry-pick the ones they wanted in power. I quickly identified who would have the most to gain: China.

When the CIA, FBI, NSA and ODNI concluded that Russia tampered in the 2016 election, I thought I had gotten it wrong. Russia’s military and infrastructure had crumbled compared to the Cold War Era between the Soviet Union and the USA. China was far larger, more populous and had far more to gain than Russia. But when our intelligence agencies testified before Congress, they said that China posed as much if not more of a threat than Russia. CIA Chief Mike Pompeo has said that China has a “much bigger footprint” than Russia to carry out covert activities. And China has steadily been learning about our technology, even manufacturing many critical components used in electronic devices.

But the tampering that occurred by both China and Russia did not begin in 2016. Most likely it began nearly 20 years ago. This was not—is not—something that was simply thrown together like a last-minute prank. This was the result of decades of planning. The United States, for example, declared the Cold War over. The Former Soviet Union never did. To test how well election tampering or hacking performed, they most likely would have started with a much smaller target, such as a local election. Local elections are less likely to have high levels of security, and some have reportedly allowed employees or even volunteers to bring home voting machines in the days before an election. These are considered “soft targets”. All that would be needed is to get to one of those employees—say, someone they could bribe, blackmail or coerce—into providing access—essentially, an inside man (or woman). Another method is to hack into the individual’s wireless network, access the voting machine remotely, infect it, and then spread the virus to all the others when they came online the day of the election.

By selecting smaller targets, the criminals could perfect their methods, growing more emboldened by their success until they were electing governors, senators and representatives. Comparing polling figures from multiple sources, one could easily question how so many could be wrong when the dark horse is elected instead. But it would take years to suspect a foreign government’s interference. Even now, the focus has been on social media and sowing discord among Americans.

While no evidence has been released regarding actual vote alteration, our government has moved forward with more cybersecurity—but progress has been spotty and inconsistent. One reason for this is when a party is in power, they are reluctant to admit that a criminal enterprise might have had something to do with their election. It takes individuals who place America’s security above all else, serving their country and citizens versus establishing their own power. I wrote The China Conspiracy without a political agenda; the antagonist is an Independent, agreeing with the Democrats on some issues and Republicans on others.

The book is a novelized version; Kit Olsen is a veteran CIA programmer-analyst when her son is kidnapped. The ransom: Mandarin computer code covertly intercepted by the CIA. As she tries to get her son back, she must also break the code—which leads to an unimaginable situation and a political bonfire. If you enjoy thrillers that are—especially in this case—realistic plots that will open your eyes to very real possibilities, then you’ll enjoy The China Conspiracy. Best place to buy it is on amazon. Read an excerpt here, and watch the trailer below.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Actions of our Heroes

The most common response to encountering something unexpected or potentially traumatic is to freeze. This has always been my default response to spiders. And once when I was gardening, I stood up to find myself face to face with the largest snake I’d ever seen. It had slithered into a bush and upward through the branches so we were eyeball to eyeball. Instinctively, I froze. But while my body remained perfectly still, my mind was racing—was it a poisonous snake? Had I disturbed it? Was it going to lash out at me?

In writing, a character might freeze momentarily, as I did. In westerns, minor characters might freeze in the background as the dangerous antagonist enters town. Spectators might freeze as they watch a disaster unfolding, such as floodwaters rushing toward them or the proverbial train wreck. But our hero rarely freezes because that halts the action—or does it?

If a person remains frozen for too long, they can easily become a victim. Our hero’s story might begin with such a moment, such as a hiker that freezes so long that a snake or a mountain lion is able to attack, or an avalanche, tsunami or tornado sweeps them away. That is where the story begins, as the victim must become his or her own hero in order to survive. They must awaken from their frozen status—sometimes forced to by external actions—and they must fight their way back.

In reality, people can remain frozen for more than a few seconds. Soldiers experiencing PTSD often find themselves frozen in time—a horrendous battle, for example, or being gassed, as happened in World War I, keeping them in that moment for years afterward. Others have less dramatic backdrops. An abused wife may remain in the marriage, frozen by an inability to escape because a physical, mental or emotional barrier exists. Oftentimes, these are peripheral characters in a book—a parent that has given up, and the son or daughter, our hero, vows never to follow that path. Ellen O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is a frozen character; we learn of her earlier passionate but unrequited love and subsequent marriage to Gerald O’Hara, and though she continues to move through her days, she is but a shell of a person. 

Other times, it is the hero himself we encounter as frozen at the start of the book; the man or woman with a traumatic past, perhaps escaping through alcohol or other vices until they are roused to action. Often, we discover their trauma as backstory interwoven into the plot. Vicki’s Key begins as CIA psychic spy Vicki Boyd is remembering a flawed mission resulting in the deaths of children, prompting her to leave the CIA and move to a small town, where she hopes to remain psychologically frozen—but fate intervenes.

The second reaction to trauma is flight. When I encountered that snake in the bushes, I began stepping backward after those first frozen seconds (or as my family put it, I was doing a great impression of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk) as my mind registered that it was not poisonous but it was huge—over six feet in length. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Robert Getchell, our battered hero flees from her abusive husband and begins a new life. Other times, events dictate our hero’s flight, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads are forcibly evicted from their home—or in countless tales of immigrants fleeing starvation, war or vendettas, including Mario Puzo’s The Godfather trilogy as a young Don Corleone immigrates to America to escape Sicilian killers and coming full circle, when his son Michael Corleone is exiled to Sicily from New York to escape Mafia retaliation.

In writing, it is the flight itself that propels our hero onward, through various challenges and literal or figurative monsters. We know our hero will be forever altered at the end of this journey, and we also know he or she would never have realized their potential if they had remained in place. Reluctant heroes are often frozen characters that have become intimately acquainted with a mediocre existence, but are often propelled upon a journey not of their own making. This is Vicki’s plight in Vicki’s Key, as she flees to a small town only to be pulled from her intentioned freeze by a haunted house, a mysterious woman locked away in a creaking old house, an enigmatic nephew, and the CIA calling her back for one more mission.

The third reaction is to fight, and our literary heroes must inevitably battle for survival. Their fight might be quite literal, from Dorothy’s destruction of the Wicked Witch of the West in L.Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to James Bond, Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan’s destruction of countless villains.

Other times, their fight consists of survival—a will to live despite their traumatic circumstances. One of my favorite books is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a true story in which ordinary people find themselves on Mount Everest during one of the deadliest days in the mountain’s history as a massive storm turned every climber’s life into an epic fight for survival. We know some will perish and others will survive despite the odds, and their individual struggles keep us on the edge of our seats.

Other times, the hero’s struggles are a blend of frozen, flight and fight as their backstory unfolds, revealing a trauma that seems insurmountable; a flight from the location or circumstances; and ultimately, a fight to survive, as in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Our hero may or may not be successful, and it is that uncertainty that propels the story forward. In the climactic scene of Vicki’s Key, Vicki has transformed from one that is frozen to one that is fleeing—and finally, at the end of the journey, to one who must stand and fight.

In all excellent literature, there exists a constellation around the hero comprised of individuals that are frozen, others that are fleeing, and still others that are fighting. Tom Clavin’s Dodge City is such a book. It is filled with characters that remain in Dodge City despite the hardships and violence because they have simply given up, perhaps believing the entire world is exactly like their lawless town or perhaps because they feel a sense of powerlessness. Others are only passing through, from dance hall girls and prostitutes to cowboys and settlers on their journeys westward. And still others, the ultimate heroes of our story, choose to stand and fight.

When writing their stories, we rarely provide the psychology of each character—nor should we. Their actions—or inactions—are all we need to piece together their profiles in our mind’s eye. Yet the author must delve deeper, arriving at each character’s backstory and motivations, even if those details do not find their way into the storyline. Other times, our main characters become multi-dimensional as we write of both their present and their past trauma, slipping from the current scene to their backstory, while peripheral characters remain at the edges, a little fuzzy perhaps but always representing the ones that froze, that ran… or those that fought.

And that snake in my garden? It was the largest black snake I’ve ever seen before or since; more than six feet in length and as big around as my arm. Neighbors told me to leave it alone, as we lived in a rural area of Virginia known for copperheads, and as it turned out, black snakes dislike copperheads almost as much as humans do. So I named him Jake the Snake, and we peacefully coexisted until an ice storm at Christmas might have frozen him, because after the storm hit, I never saw him again. As large as he was, I hope he’d lived a nice, long life.

 All images from View the trailer to Vicki's Key below: