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40 Best Books on National Security

There are many titles available that deal with National Security; it has become a favorite topic ever since the events of 9/11 when the matter of National Security was forced into prominence in the nation’s consciousness.  Since 2001, the nature of National Security has evolved with new technologies, threats and defenses.  To help understand the complex nature of American domestic security, here are brief introductions to 40 books on the topic of National Security (presented in alphabetical order – due to the wide scope of the topic, ranking these tomes would provide too daunting of a task!).

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States; Thomas Kean

The first “Final” report was published in November 2002 and immediately created a stir of controversy. Some shouted “cover-up” and others called it propaganda and deception. Whatever the politics of the reader, this republication of the 9/11 Commission’s report identifies the unforeseen vulnerabilities to America’s security system and provides the official record of the events that ushered in a new era of security in the United States. Calling out the missteps and political theater leading up to the attacks, particularly partisan politics that distracted the Congress from identifying (or acting on) genuine threats, the book also calls out the success of air traffic controllers’ efforts to ground all air traffic within 3 hours despite not having a protocol or emergency plan to do so.

Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security–From World War II to the War on Terrorism; Julian E. Zelizer

Historian Julian Zelizer presents unique insights into major national security issues and events from Roosevelt’s management of American involvement in World War II through the George W Bush administration. Identifying the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy, Zelizer reveals the complexities of the interaction of partisan politics and security issues and events over several decades. Overlaying the political stances’ (conservative v liberal) effect on domestic and foreign policy, Zelizer gives an even-handed review of each administration’s handling of affairs.

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon; Kim Zetter

Detailing the events of January 2010, this book chronicles the discovery of a major “super weapon” – the Stuxnet virus. Significant in its own right by virtue of being a virus or worm that went beyond infecting and affecting the targeted computer workstations to reach to the equipment controlled by those computers. This is considered to be the first digital weapon ever discovered. Once discovered and decoded, the Stuxnet virus revealed additional cyber weapons and digital spy tools that were being created and refined. Zetter brings her history of covering hackers for Wired to detail the events surrounding the discovery of Stuxnet – and its implications of a rapidly changing virtual environment.

Creating the National Security State: A History of the Law that Transformed America; Douglast T. Stuart

This historical study discusses the impact of a single piece of legislation on the security environment in the United States: the National Security Act of 1947. Stuart presents the struggles, debates and disputes within Congress as they grappled with the lessons learned from the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s portion of World War II to set the stage for domestic security policy. Stuart traces the expansion of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the CIA and the introduction of the National Security Council. Stuart’s conclusion is that understanding the history of national security will serve today’s citizens as the public discourse over national security continues.

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War; Fred Kaplan

After watching the movie War Games in 1983, President Reagan asked if the scenario in the film was plausible in real life. After being told that it was indeed a possibility, the President set computer security in the forefront of national security. After successful implementation of “cyber techniques” in 1991 in Kuwait, the military has sought new and novel ways to use computer technology as weapons of war. Kaplan details several events where computer access and actions proved to be game-changers. One frightening conclusion is the revelation of vulnerability in our own culture and society.

Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad; Bruce Riedel

Is Pakistan an ally of the United States? Riedel, a leading expert on U.S. security, South Asia and terrorism examines the complex relationship between these two countries and its impact on national security. Riedel explores how different presidential administrations have dealt with Pakistan as well as the historical impact of that relationship since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. In seeking to unravel the paradox – that Pakistan is an American ally that aides America’s enemies – Riedel demonstrates why so many people are confused about the relationship between these two countries who seem to be stuck with one another.

Detention and Denial: The Case for Candor After Guantanamo; Benjamin Wittes

Wittes is a senior fellow at The Brooking Institution and provides a non-ideological discussion on his blog (lawfareblog). Here, Wittes describes how American detention policy (a result of national security policy, issues and actions) is not a system of moral and legal determination but rather is confusing, muddy and arbitrary. In detailing the ‘what comes next’ portion of national security, Wittes calls out specifics of American detention policy that includes restricted human rights, unjustifiable actions and perverse incentives. His recommendations include a policy based on candor with clear guidelines based on characteristics of detainees instead of the geography of their capture.

Enemies: How America’s Foes Steal Our Vital Secrets–And How We Let It Happen; Bill Gertz

In this unsettling account of America’s past (and present) vulnerabilities, Gertz details gaps, mistakes and missteps in various episodes of espionage and infiltration. Gertz exposes how spy networks have gotten away with theft of sensitive information, how errors in American response have permitted some to infiltrate government agencies (to a very high level) and how foreign intelligence has exerted influence on American government. Gertz also examines how aggressive counterintelligence is the best response to this situation and why intelligence bureaucracy resists such measures. This book details the untold story of America’s War on Terror – and how we are doing.

Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Security; Richard Myers

General Myers offers an intimate view of national security. In recounting his lengthy military career and rise to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Myers provides historical accounts and insightful analysis of America’s military operations, including such notions about the war in Vietnam, “we never lost a battle… but we lost the war.” General Myers explores the necessity of learning from the past to prepare for the future; exposing the process of determining military and national security policy as it involves the White House, the Pentagon and the Intelligence community.

Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security–An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State; Matthew Brzezinski

Brzenski’s journalism career covered counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. From this research, he brings an insider’s perspective to trending ideas and pending actions, including emotional discernment at airline ticket counters (via cameras), surveillance equipment that can see through walls and national identification cards. Brzenski paints a picture that describes the trade-off of freedom for security; the technology he explains is not imaginary – it’s in use today in other “secure” states like Israel. He begs the questions “what would you trade for security?” and “what guarantee do we have that security technology will prevent another massive terrorist attack?”

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001; Steve Coll

In his years as a foreign correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post, Coll gathered much information first-hand. This Pulitzer-prize winning tome reveals the CIA’s involvement in al-Qaeda’s evolution and growth. In exposing American involvement in bin Laden’s fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Coll reveals the American failure to recognize the potential ramifications of al-Qaeda’s turning against the United States. Coll’s experience in the Middle East provides the backdrop for his recounting of events and factions’ (supported covertly by the U.S.) eventual turn against the West that lead to current events.

Glass Houses: Privacy, Secrecy, and Cyber Insecurity in a Transparent World; Joel Brenner

Brenner served as inspector general of the National Security Agency after 9/11. He also served as head of counterintelligence for the director of National Intelligence. This experience provided him with a first-hand view of the next battlefield in the geo-political environment – cyberspace. Brenner does not offer a ‘doom and gloom’ critique of America’s vulnerability but instead advises of what is open now and how we can take good measures to reduce vulnerability on a personal and national level. Brenner’s recommendations are not necessarily heavy-handed, but incentive-driven, which is a refreshing distinction from other fear-mongering books.

Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security; Kurt Campbell, Michael O’Hanlon

National security has become a political tool, a ‘wedge issue” that can sway an election. So say Campbell, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and O’Hanlon, a foreign policy authority at The Brookings Institution as they examine how the work done by Democrats was co-opted by Republicans for political gain. Beyond the examination of national security as political theater, the authors present a broad vision for national security which includes specific policy recommendations and strategies for success.

How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?: Freedom Versus Security in the Age of Terrorism; Amitai Etzioni

The Patriot Act has brought much discussion and dialogue over the debate of rights v security. Enacted shortly after 9/11, few pieces of legislation have been as polarizing in the American culture. Etzioni examines both primary perspectives on the issue, described as “those who are committed to shore up our liberties but blind to the needs of public security” and “those who never met a right they are not willing to curtail to give authorities en even freer hand.” He then offers a third way – perhaps a true middle ground – based on a communitarian goal of tools to identify and mitigate threats and review organizations to prevent unnecessary infringements of rights.

The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind; Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer

The identification of the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks was made quickly: Osama bin Laden. The pursuit of the mastermind behind bib Laden is the subject of this book. The relentless pursuit of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is chronicled as the methods used by U.S. intelligence were plagued by false leads and mistakes; Mohammed was on U.S. radar well before 9/11. Presenting information from verified sources and solid investigative journalism including unprecedented access to key individuals, McDermott and Meyer offer a glimpse into the environment of counter-terrorism and espionage.

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future; Victor Cha

North Korea is an enigma; it is a puzzle that offers few clues to the reality within its borders. Cha, a former top advisor on Korean affairs to the White House, offers a glimpse of Korean history, the impact of Kim Jong-Il’s death and the transition of power to his inexperienced son. Drawing on personal experience in Pyongyang and his duties in the G.W. Bush administration, Cha examines the culture and politics of this nation-state including constant human-rights violations, belligerent relationship with the West and quest for a nuclear arsenal. Cha examines how the country has been able to survive despite near-complete economic collapse and the unbelievable dedication the population has to its royal family. Understanding the North Korean culture will provide insight into how U.S. security policy should be structured.

Introduction to Homeland Security; Jane Bullock, George Haddow, Damon Coppola

Part textbook and part handbook, Bullock, Haddow and Coppola put forth an overview of the Department of Homeland Security. The book doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a summary (hence the title), but it covers a lot of territory. The authors present actions taken post-9/11 in legislation, government organization, technology, communications and emergency management standard practices. After setting the background for the need for the Department of Homeland Security, the authors examine domestic policy and the structure of the department and provide contact information for individual departments as a resource for the general populace.

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency; Daniel Klaidman

Daniel Klaidman is a special correspondent for Newsweek magazine, and this book is the result of many interviews, documents and independent research. Klaidman reviews candidate Obama’s promises (close Guantanamo, end coercive interrogation tactics and military tribunals while restoring the principle of American justice) and compares them to his actions in his first term in office (none were kept, and he increased drone strikes and covert operations). While written as a thought-provoking book before the 2012 election, Klaidman’s report sheds light on the behind-the-scenes of administering a country in the midst of the War on Terror; expedience may have driven the President’s decisions, but the atmosphere in which those decisions were made is presented here.

Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama; Jeremi Suri

Nobel Fellow Jeremi Suri examines America’s history of nation-building – both within its border and overseas – and calls out the successes and failures along the way. America has always wanted representative government to be its “chief export” in order for the global community to be a gathering of stable, self-governing states that cooperate and continue the American way of life. Suri’s examination of the failures provides insight into our national security in that it points out that ideological differences can be insurmountable and an enemy can be created/empowered as a result of American ‘meddling’ in its affairs.

The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda; Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen, the CNN national security analyst who produced a 1997 television interview with Osama bin Laden, chronicles the lengthy conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaeda. Bergen presents both perspectives and details events from pre-9/11 and the evolution of al-Qaeda through its powerful period and ultimately to the collapse of the Taliban and its subsequent ideological struggle with the Muslim world. In a passionate voice, Bergen details errors and missed opportunities while presenting the perspective of the jihadist and the patriot. In all, he presents the atmosphere in which the War on Terror exists.

National Security and Double Government; Michael J. Glennon

A review of the governmental structure related to national security is presented over history. Starting with Madison, working through Truman to G.W. Bush and Obama, Glennon examines the shift in authority from an “imperial presidency to a bifurcated system – a structure of double government – in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy.” He calls out that the national security is in the hands of “several hundred managers of the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies who are responsible for protecting the nation and who have come to operate largely immune from constitutional and electoral restraints.” The book is a powerful call for reformation as soon as possible.

Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions about Security to Protect You, Your Family and America ; Randall Larsen

Larsen examines the government’s ability to provide security for American citizens and finds it lacking. Offering a practical, logical approach to personal security, he details simple steps individuals can take that are beyond the scope of governmental agencies. Asking difficult questions (“How do we prevent a terrorist organization from becoming a nuclear power?” and “Who should be in charge of logistics during a major disaster?”), Larsen explains that asking proper questions will assist in resolving problems better. His presentation serves as a call for the citizenry to take responsibility for their security.

Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism; Geoffrey R. Stone

Former law professor and editor of a book series “Inalienable Rights” Geoffrey Stone examines the compromise of the First Amendment and other civil liberties during active wartime in America. Identifying six specific time periods between the Sedition Act of 1798 through the war in Vietnam and into the early 21st century, Stone presents eras even when speech could pose a ‘clear and present danger,’ its protection under the U.S. Constitution must be kept in focus. As the debate in the current culture focuses on individual rights, this presentation examines the impact of temporary suppression of those rights for the greater good. Historical perspective can (and should) shape current culture.

Personal Security: Preparing for the Unexpected in an Era of Crime and Terrorism; Richard Bradford

In this hands-on, practical instruction book, author Richard Bradford presents methods to avoid becoming a victim. The former Army Special Forces Officer and CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer has designed and presented personal security courses to government agency staff and those deployed overseas. Not just another skills-improving tome, Bradford instructs on how to recognize legitimate threats through “situational awareness” and becoming a “hard target” that is undesirable to any perpetrator. Bradford includes ways to analyze one’s vulnerabilities and take steps to avoid risk. He also advises on how not to become a victim of a mass casualty tragedy despite being in the crowd. By presenting the perspective of the perpetrator, Bradford provides valuable information for individuals to take personal responsibility for their security.

Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency After 9/11; Jack Goldsmith

Former Harvard Law professor and general counsel to President G.W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith is an expert in Constitutional Law. In this tome, Goldsmith states that a common belief that presidential accountability ended at 9/11 is completely false. In fact, the accountability demanded of the President has never been greater. It is true that powers assumed by the office of President expanded in a post-9/11 America, the legal and political constraints associated with those powers were attached to them. It is due to these constraints that President Obama continued the counterterrorism program initiated by the Bush administration. This is one factor, according to Goldsmith, that reflects a victory for Constitutional government.

Schneier on Security; Bruce Schneier

Mr. Schneier is considered a leading expert on security; his publication of topical essays under the umbrella of security is divided into sections that include: Computer Security, Security and Privacy, Economics of Security and National Security and Terrorism. Each topic is explored over the course of a collection of articles produced for trade publications and news outlets. Schneier explores how security is intertwined with many other elements of culture and society (notable is the parallels with economics) and recommends actions the individual can take to enhance their security.

Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home; Juliette Kayyem

The primary thesis of Ms. Kayvem’s book is that security begins at home. A former advisor in the Department of Homeland Security and CNN analyst, she has first-hand knowledge of national disasters (including the anthrax scare, the BP oil spill and the Boston Marathon bombing) and shares her personal and career story that is equal parts memoir and handbook. Ms. Kayvem offers practical steps anyone should take to be prepared for unexpected events while injecting anecdotes and glimpses into her family’s experiences.

Snowden; Ted Rall

Syndicated columnist and political cartoonist Ted Rall presents a portrait of a brave individual who stood up for his beliefs against the most powerful government in the world. Instead of being Don Quixote, Edward Snowden held his ground and played to a tie (by many accounts). Rall explores Mr. Snowden’s early life, influences and work experience as he delved into the question of privacy juxtaposed with security and surveillance technology; which led to a study of government intrusion into the private lives of the citizenry. Instead of being a radicalized zealot, Mr. Snowden is described as a principled individual facing grievous wrongdoings in the name of ‘security.’

Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration; Deepa Fernandes

Exploring the immigrant’s experience in post-9/11 America, journalist Deepa Fernandes presents narrative, history and political analysis to paint a bleak picture of current conditions for those seeking freedom and the American Dream. Presented as an expose, Fernandes recounts the stories of people trying to live their lives in peace and freedom, but wind up on the wrong side of a massive bureaucracy that is stacked against them. Fernandes humanizes the subject of these stories while addressing the inequities of U.S. immigration policy and enforcement. The main assertion is that immigrants are targeted in the name of homeland security, and there are high profits to be made by the “right” organizations.

Terror in the Balance: Security, Liberty and the Courts; Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule

Adding his voice to the conversation over civil liberties and security, Posner and Vermeule argue that the government should be afforded the opportunity to adjust policy and restrict civil liberties in times of emergency. The basis for their position is that the value gained from the increase in security will more than offset the impact of restricted civil liberty; their point is a non-emotional cost-benefit approach. Agree or disagree, this book presents a position that can (and should) spark good dialog about the delicate balance of security and civil liberty.

The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration; Jack Goldsmith

Jack Goldsmith is a former Harvard Law professor and served as the Head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the G.W. Bush administration. Taking the position in 2003, Mr. Goldsmith reviewed the work of his predecessors which provided the legal framework over military and intelligence agencies. As an expert in Constitutional Law, he found many flawed policies. Less of a memoir and more of a description of the environment in which he worked, Mr. Goldsmith seeks to examine the complexities of maintaining legal integrity under previously unknown conditions – detailing the importance of the Office of Legal Counsel to inform the administration of the legality of certain actions while ensuring the security of the general public.

Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security; John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart

No one disputes that the cost of maintaining national security is high. Mueller and Stewart examine the value of security compared to the cost expended to achieve that security. In an unemotional cost-benefit analysis of the money spent on national security, the authors maintain that to justify the cash outlay, over 1,600 potential terror attacks would have had to be thwarted annually (more than four per day). The primary assertion is that much has been wasted in the name of national security – American’s have not received their money’s worth when it comes to paying for security.

The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror; Garrett M. Graff

Noted journalist and historian Garret Graff explores the Federal Bureau of Investigation and their duty to protect Americans from terrorists before they reached our shores. Starting with the terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Graff provides insight into the operation to protect American athletes from harm. What follows is an over 30-year history of FBI activity, interaction with other governmental agencies and the shared task of combatting terrorism, ensure domestic civil liberties and maintain national security. Graff tracks the changes in the FBI from domestic law enforcement to an international intelligence agency in this engaging narrative.

The Triple Agent: The al Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA; Joby Warrick

Pulitzer Prize winner Joby Warrick presents the tale of an operative who infiltrated both al-Qaeda and the CIA to almost unimaginable levels. Jordanian operative Balawi had been providing the CIA with high-level information from within al-Qaeda and was on the verge of becoming a valuable double-agent for the U.S. in the War on Terror. Ultimately, his true allegiances were revealed as he was responsible for the deaths of seven top terrorist hunters in Afghanistan. Reading like a novel, this is the historical account detailing a dark episode in CIA activity; multiple mis-steps contributed to the ultimate tragedy involving the deaths of seven important operatives.

Trust Betrayed: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Selling Out of America’s National Security; Scott Taylor

Former Navy SEAL (who served for eight years) saw much action in his service, but when he came home to see how the administration handled security and sensitive information, he grew frustrated. Exploring the impact of policy on the front-line troops, Taylor describes the importance of intelligence, secrecy and focus on national goals (as opposed to individual enrichment) in this indictment of the Obama administration’s handling of national security and foreign affairs. Taylor examines the impact of political expedience on the lives of soldiers as well as the support (or lack thereof) of the administration in their assignments overseas (particularly the Middle East). Tying his argument back to national security, Taylor explores the balance of American presence in the Middle East to not only combat terrorism but to help maintain future American interests in that region.

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran; David Crist

The lengthy “war” against Iran has rarely made the network news. Fought in the shadows, government historian David Crist presents the history of this conflict that was launched in the 1980’s (after the deposing of the Shah) and continued for years out of the public eye. The U.S. and Iran are each other’s national security nightmares, and Crist recounts many episodes of skirmishes, covert attacks, and intelligence community activities (on both sides) in this engaging book. This conflict has lasted over five presidential administrations and threatened to escalate into a direct war several times; Crist details the activities over this time in a detail-heavy, dense tome.

Understanding Homeland Security: Policy, Perspectives, and Paradoxes; John B. Noftsinger, Jr, Kenneth Newbold, Jr, Jack K. Wheeler

Offered as a primer to understanding the Department of Homeland Security, the authors embark on the daunting task of presenting the framework and structure of the massive organization that is the DHS. Noftsinger, Newbold and Wheeler provide analysis of the historical, social, political and technical elements of national security that led to the agency’s creation in 2002. The balance between private and public sector impact and integration is explored in an inter-disciplinary manner to provide the reader with a firm foundational grasp of the department, its purpose and function.

War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences; Mary Dudziak

What defines war time for a country? Why does it matter? The first question is difficult to answer definitively, the answer to the second question is more clear: government can extend its reach into civilian life (and civil liberties) under war time conditions. In light of this, Mary Dudziak explores the increasingly softening definition of “war time” and how it impacts government actions (i.e., detaining foreign nationals, interrogation tactics, etc.). This book provides food for thought as the implications can be far-reaching; there should be many discussions and debates as a result of this publication.

Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad; Andrew C. McCarthy

National Review columnist Andrew C McCarthy served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. This is significant because he led the prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in the 1995 terrorism case sparked from the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993. McCarthy examines the “us versus them” mentality within the government (FBI v CIA and intelligence v law enforcement) and the intricacies of prosecuting foreign nationals as well as the inadequacies of the criminal code against bombing conspirators (maximum penalty for “conspiracy” was five years; there was no provision for penalizing the act of terror). He brings his thought back to an unemotional perspective by saying “national security is not a theology exam.”

Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of Homeland Security; Charles Faddis

Retired CIA officer served for 20 years and worked as department chief of the Counterterrorism Center and station chief in the Middle East. Here, Faddis turns a critical eye to America’s Homeland Security system and asks “are we really any safer than we were on 9/11?” He tips his hand in the introduction with “large new bureaucracies have been created and huge shiny, new office buildings constructed, but in terms of concrete measures which will stand in the way of determined, evil men, there is very, very little.”

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