Former President Clinton: Need for Cybersecurity More Fact Than Fiction

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Courtesy / JohnDavid Scarcliff for the Tobin Center

Former President Bill Clinton discusses his new thriller with Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente Matson (right) at the Tobin Center.

A president racing to thwart a devastating cyberattack may be the plot element that drives former President Bill Clinton's first novel, but he intends it to be a consciousness-raising element, too.

In The President Is Missing, which Clinton co-wrote with best-selling thriller writer James Patterson, President Lincoln Duncan must foil terrorists behind a computer virus that threatens the country's digital infrastructure. At an appearance Monday night at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to promote and discuss the book, Clinton told his audience that he hopes the book will help the nation realize the importance of cybersecurity.

"What we were trying to do is see whether a [work] of fiction could capture the imagination and make people think, 'We ought to do more on this,'" he said, noting that the Defense Department's budget for cybersecurity is only about 5 percent of the nation's overall defense budget.

"I'm also concerned that because Vladimir Putin was personally running this campaign to help President Trump and hurt Hillary, that whether people believe this is a problem or not may depend entirely on who they voted for. And that would be a terrible mistake.

"You don't want the operating systems that govern our national defense hacked and messed up," Clinton continued. "You don't want the electrical grid to shut down and have a virus that could also kill the backup systems, and before we get it all backed up have another attack that would fry all the transformers in the country. Because it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat, if you need to go to the hospital, you'd like [those systems] to be there. You don't want your bank account to disappear."

Asked by moderator Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, whether the United States was doing enough to stave off foreign cyberattacks, Clinton replied no.

"I want everybody to think, 'Hey, we need to make sure that the country that basically brought the world the internet and most of the IT advances of the last years is first in the world in cyberdefense,'" he said, noting the prominent role that San Antonio plays in the nation's cybersecurity industry.

Discussing the genesis of the collaboration with Patterson, Clinton told the audience that the book came about because the prolific author was "obsessed with this one idea: that the president should go missing."

"Now, nobody say anything," Clinton said slyly as the audience roared.

Clinton touched on other topics as well, discussing the last presidential race, the role of the presidency, and laying out a prescription for improving the nation's education system.

Talking about the election that his wife lost to Trump in 2016, Clinton called it "a resentment election. ... You had economic, racial, ethnic, cultural anger."

As president he said he learned to "recognize that in a complicated world, diverse groups make a lot better decisions than homogenous groups and lone geniuses, much less lone autocrats."

And while the 42nd president seemed careful to avoid direct criticism of the White House's current occupant, some of his comments appeared aimed at how Trump's administration functions.

"This being president's a real job," Clinton said. "It matters what you know, and it also matters who's helping you. And it matters whether the people who are helping you feel free to disagree with you."

On education, an emphasis since his days as Arkansas' governor, Clinton called for a "culture of copying" what has been found to work, whether it's in Massachusetts or Finland.

"If you're in any kind of competitive endeavor and you ignore what your competitor is doing, pretty soon you'll be out of business," he said. "Just because you've got a monopoly on revenues and customers doesn't mean you should ignore that."

He drew some of the loudest applause of the evening when he said that teachers should be paid "enough so that it's obvious we respect them."

Prior to the former president's appearance, 150 meet-and-greet tickets priced at $375 a head sold out, Tobin Center officials said. Security was tight, with police K-9 units patrolling the steps outside the building, audience members being wanded before they were admitted, and two members of Clinton's security detail stationed discreetly on each side of the stage.

Since Clinton's book tour launched earlier this month in New York with a string of network and cable television interviews about his new thriller, Clinton has faced renewed questions about his own presidential drama: revelations of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives in 1998.

A testy and defensive interview on NBC's Today show left the former president having to backtrack in subsequent media appearances. “When something that was that painful is thrown up again after 20 years after it was fully litigated, you tend to freeze up — and it wasn’t my finest hour,” he told an audience at a New York Times event the day after the broadcast of the Today interview, in which he said he did not feel he needed to apologize privately to Lewinsky and would not have handled his response to the scandal any differently.

On Monday night, three protesters outside the Tobin Center held signs referring to the #MeToo movement and to Lewinsky.

Teniente-Matson asked Clinton about his thoughts on the #MeToo movement. He responded by saying that the movement "deserves our thanks. It's long overdue."

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