"A CIA team has to fight a massive hacking attack"
Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted August 20, 2017
The title would imply that this tale of espionage and
treachery is truth, but we're assured that it's mostly
fiction. Probably. For now. ZERO DAY: CHINA'S CYBER WARS
sounds ominous. Given the swift spread of a ransom malware
recently, computer users are, or should be, a lot more wary
than they were a few years ago. T.L. Williams tells us he
is a retired CIA officer who is well travelled and has
hands-on knowledge of these matters.
This 'Logan Alexander' series has now reached its third
book. I had not read the earlier ones so it took me a
little time to identify with the main characters. They do
grow on you, and you appreciate the wariness of the agents,
who don't know if they are dealing with honest citizens,
spies or double crossers - even triple crossers. Much of
the action occurs in Hong Kong or mainland Chinese cities.
However we see comparatively little of Chinese culture, as
the Americans prefer to associate with other Americans. One
brave scientist among the Chinese decides that he must act
against corruption and despotism; this is the spark for the
Knowing their nation has many computer systems, each
vulnerable in its own way and serving vital services as
well as commercial interests, the CIA are always keen to
fight international hacking attacks. In this instance they
are forewarned of a giant Chinese Army effort called Zero
Day which intends to put American systems out of action,
enough to destabilise the dollar either short term or long
term. Logan Alexander is in charge of the CIA's counter-
efforts on the ground. Of course, the Chinese are not the
only ones to have what John leCarre refers to as a mole.
Teams of agents work on both continents to secure
information and destroy the other side's efforts.
I like the constant sticking to tradecraft, an agent making
sure he is not under surveillance and preparing his
identity or cover story. A personal touch is provided by
references to family matters on both sides, and locations
are well described, with the amount of travelling included,
not just flight hops. Expect some strong language in
context and violence, though not more than required to
carry the action. In fact this is a much cleaner and more
intelligent book than many thrillers, emphasising the info
tech information in a comprehensible manner, especially if
you have read a few techno thrillers. ZERO DAY: CHINA'S
CYBER WARS comes recommended by me as an exciting read
first, and a worrisome one as well. I think I'll go run an
antivirus check and do a few data backups. Because you
Learn more about Zero Day
CIA veteran T. L. Williams unfolds a chilling—and highly
conceivable—scenario in his latest novel, ZERO DAY:
China's Cyber Wars.
Moving between Chongqing, China and Langley, Virginia,
fast-paced spy thriller revolves around a plot by the
Chinese government to seize the edge on global power by
undermining the U.S. economy. Armed with an underground
force of hackers, China’s Ministry of Public Security
has a mission: to destroy confidence in the dollar by
launching persistent, aggressive cyberattacks on
Revenge—against the Communist Party for his
father’s shameful death, Li Jiang, a senior Public
Bureau officer in Chongqing, lets America in on the
details of China’s masterful cyberattack plan. To vet and
handle this potential asset, the CIA dispatches Logan
Alexander, a former Navy SEAL, working undercover in Hong
Kong, to China. Logan quickly comes to trust Li. But the
brass back in Langley have doubts. Could Li be a double
agent? Or could a trusted American be spying for the
Chinese? Reviewed by the CIA, ZERO DAY is packed
with authentic insider details.
The tip of the man’s cigarette glowed like something
feral in the muggy darkness, marking the spot where he
squatted on his haunches beneath the protection of an
ancient plane tree. Had it not been for the harsh smell
of the tobacco smoke wafting up into the night air,
accompanied by an occasional nervous cough, Logan
Alexander would have bet even money that he was the only
living soul for miles in any direction.
He had observed the tentative figure approaching their
meeting site thirty minutes earlier, cautious, head
swiveling to confront every sound. Now, he strained to
make out the man no more than seventy yards away who had
settled in to wait until Logan signaled that it was
secure to initiate contact.
The lanky operations officer lay stretched out on his
stomach, motionless in a shallow depression in the earth,
most likely carved out by a wild animal. There was a
stench in the air emanating from the makeshift pigsty
attached to a windowless hovel about sixty yards east of
his position. He’d been in place for forty-five minutes,
and by his reckoning it was at least an hour until
daybreak. There was no stirring from the direction of the
farmer’s hut. Only the occasional night sounds of woofing
and grunting from the pigs’ enclosure broke the silence.
Logan had crossed over the border from Hong Kong into
China’s New Territories three days ago, and had been
making his way by train, bus, and on foot to this meeting
site, a farm just outside of Chongqing in Szechuan
Province. This area had been inhabited for millennia and
even today was known as Banan District in honor of the
ancient Ba State founded in the eleventh century BC.
Logan thought back to the area familiarization course
he’d taken at Langley in preparation for his assignment
to Hong Kong. In his previous life as a Navy SEAL,
everything he’d studied had been geared towards the
Middle East, mostly Iraq and Afghanistan. But this time
it had been different. The focus had been on China. He
remembered his Chinese culture professor, Dr. Wang,
solemn in his frayed pinstripe suit and muted silk rep
tie, superior in manner despite his sartorial
shortcomings. Squinting through thick tortoise-shell
bifocals, Wang had held forth on China’s three thousand
years of history, never failing to take a jibe at the
U.S., which he described as an upstart, not even a
quarter of the way through its first millennium.
Logan gritted his teeth as his left leg cramped up; the
muscle spasm was painful, but his mind was preoccupied
with the shadowy figure up ahead. The cramping
intensified, forcing him to shift his weight slightly to
relieve pressure on the muscle.
He hadn’t been the same since the day his SEAL team had
been ambushed in Afghanistan. He’d been lucky that it was
only a short helicopter ride from the battlefield to the
military hospital in Kandahar and that SEAL Team 8’s
medic was one of the best in theater. Triage and timing
had saved his leg that day, but ultimately did little to
sway the medical evaluation board’s decision, despite
eighteen months of rehab, that his Navy career was
He allowed his thoughts to dwell for a moment on the
scene at MacDill Air Force Base, Special Operations
Command, firmly etched in his mind even though it had
been five years ago. Admiral Sylvester, the senior
medical officer in charge of the review, had delivered
the board’s verdict – separation from the Navy. He’d
walked out of the room with a sense of loss so profound
that he felt his life would never be the same.
Logan tensed as he realized with a start that the
satisfied grunts emanating from the pigsty had given way
to shrill squealing. Staring in that direction he was
dismayed to see the bobbing headlights of two jeeps
bouncing down the rutted dirt path that passed for a
road. They clattered to a stop just short of the farmer’s
hut. A half-dozen public security officers spilled out.
The Ministry of Public Security’s (MPS) Public Security
Bureau, the PSB, he surmised, as one approached the hut
and began banging on the makeshift wooden door with a
clenched fist. Moments later it opened and a stooped
figure emerged, rubbing his eyes and hitching up baggy
trousers as he stared in astonishment at the PSB officers
roiling around the farmyard.
There was a rapid-fire exchange as the policeman
questioned the bewildered farmer. The latter gestured
vaguely with one hand and ran the other through his hair,
as he seemed to ponder what the PSB officer was saying.
Logan shifted his attention back to the reason he was
here in the first place –the man crouched beneath the
tree. The shadowy figure had extinguished his cigarette
and was no longer waiting there. His head was down, and
keeping low to the ground, he was scrambling away from
the direction of the police. There was a thicket of dense
shrubs roughly two hundred feet away. With any luck he
would make it there, giving him a chance to blend into
the landscape and disappear.
The patrolmen were milling around the farmyard while the
one who had hammered on the door continued to harangue
the peasant with questions. Logan’s mind was churning as
he assessed the situation, wondering if this had been a
set-up from the very beginning.
He thought back to the message he’d received from Langley
two weeks ago. In it they had described a letter that had
been slipped into the open window of the regional
security officer’s (RSO) vehicle, a short distance from
the American Consulate in Chengdu, the capital of
Szechuan province. It had happened so fast that the RSO
had not been able to get a description of the person. The
missive had been written in Chinese and was translated by
an officer working on the China desk at Langley.
“Please deliver this message to the appropriate
authorities of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I have important information to share with your
government. It is dangerous for me to communicate with
you here but I am unable to leave China at this time
because of my position in public security. It is even
risky for me to put this letter in the car of an American
official, but I am desperate.
“Your country is under attack. But the weapons being used
to accomplish this are not guns and bullets. No. The
attack comes from the cyber world, and is on such a scale
that you would not be able to fathom it.
“To prove my access to this information I will reveal one
project that we initiated before this year’s G-20
meetings in Europe. Our group identified senior staff
members in the various U.S. departments supporting your
Secretary of State’s trip and sent them a malicious virus
encoded in an email entitled EU_Economic_Options_in_Asia.
“When the email was opened it executed a malicious code
to their personal computers and through it we were able
to read all of their correspondence. We knew your
negotiating positions on a wide range of issues before
the conference even started! I have much more to share
The letter was unsigned and gave no indication of the
author’s identity, other than his obvious access to
sensitive information, but it had provided instructions
to meet at this site on this date and at this time, and
had even provided a backup meeting site. The volunteer
had gone on to elaborate on half a dozen of the U.S.
Administration’s policy positions for the G-20 summit,
two of which had not come up during the meetings and
which, to date, had not been made public.
A small interagency team of cyber experts had been
assembled to evaluate the letter’s contents. After three
days of feverish activity, including liaison with the
affected departments and forensic analysis of staff
computers, the consensus was that the write-in was for
real. From the information he had provided it was
impossible to tell where he fit into the scheme of
things, but it was certain that he, or someone he knew,
had accessed U.S. classified information.
FBI’s Cyber Division was appointed to take the lead on
the case and the special agent in charge had been given
free rein to set up a commercial entity through which the
FBI could monitor the main computer server that the
hackers were using to gain access to the targeted
computers. The Chinese must have become aware of the U.S.
monitoring of their actions because within days all
activity on the targeted server ceased; the hackers had
moved on but the FBI had no idea where to.
After an eleventh-hour meeting at FBI headquarters,
chaired by the head of Cyber Division, the task force had
decided there was too much at stake to ignore the letter,
despite concerns that it might be a Chinese provocation.
The volunteer had to be met to get to the bottom of the
hacking operation against the Secretary of State.
Candidates to make the meeting were proposed; the CIA
devised a detailed plan to meet with the write-in. Logan
had been selected to make the meeting because he was
already deployed to the region, and had no overt
affiliation with the United States Government. As head of
the Hong Kong branch of a Boston-based company, Alexander
Maritime Consulting, he could operate without attracting
the attention of Chinese authorities. Logan had opened
the Hong Kong office in September, and to date there was
no indication that he was under surveillance or even on
the radar of Chinese security officials.
The MPS, with over two million active duty officers
nation-wide, had relegated the responsibility for keeping
tabs on embassy and consulate officers in China to local
public security bureaus, raising the risk of having
someone whose name was on the diplomatic or consular list
meet an unvetted volunteer. Since Logan was in Hong Kong
working for a legitimate company, it was easier for him
to blend into the woodwork.
Who was this guy? Logan scowled as the best chance for
answering that question made it to the hedgerow and
pushed through until he was out of sight. Turning his
attention back to the scene in the farmyard, Logan
continued evaluating the situation and his own escape and
evasion options. He figured that he had about five
minutes at most to make it out of Dodge, before all hell
broke loose. While he had no definitive proof that this
activity was aimed at him, he had long ago stopped
believing in coincidences.
The police sure weren’t getting anything out of that
‘tubaozi’ from the farmhouse. He grinned despite the
circumstances. Tubaozi, literally dirt dumpling in
Chinese, was a term meant to describe a country hick.
This guy sure fit the bill.
Returning to the question at hand, Logan reasoned that
the volunteer himself might be a provocateur. Maybe the
whole thing was a set-up designed to embarrass the U.S.
But why would the Chinese give away the fact that they
were having some success against U.S. cyber security?
No, it made more sense that if the MPS were behind this
charade, they would allow the meeting to take place.
Then, depending upon how it went down, the Chinese would
have any number of options available to them, the most
attractive being to run the asset as a double agent and
feed disinformation to the CIA.
They might also try recruiting the American handler,
biding their time until they had enough assessment data
to determine how to finesse their pitch. That tactic had
always been given a low probability of success, though,
by most foreign security services because of the belief
that CIA officers were impervious to recruitment pitches.
That fiction had been put to rest in 1985 after CIA
officer Edward Lee Howard defected to Russia. Russian
successes against two other more senior CIA case
officers, Aldrich Ames and Jim Nicholson, followed in the
1990s and further tarnished the Agency’s reputation,
leaving the impression that its officers could be
Logan began crawling south, away from where the policemen
were milling around. It was crucial to put distance
between him and what was going on down there. He’d
scouted out an emergency egress route from overhead
imagery when he’d planned for this meeting, but the one
unknown had been where the volunteer would be coming
from. And, more problematically, as it turned out, where
Until proven otherwise, his assumption must be that the
volunteer was legitimate, and that the MPS presence had
nothing to do with a planned provocation or ambush. That
meant that he had to take every precaution to protect the
volunteer’s life, which would make his egress out of the
area a bit tricky. Not knowing exactly where the
volunteer had gone meant that they could still
unintentionally cross paths. And with the area heated up,
it was best that there be no contact between them, at
least for now.
He’d continued moving south and soon a change in
elevation shielded him from view of the security patrol.
He rose, and set off at a six-minute-mile pace. As a SEAL
he’d done this with a full rucksack and his weapon.
Running without all of that gear to weigh him down, he
moved without effort. The stink from the pigsty had
filled his nostrils when he set off, but as he moved
away, the strong smell dissipated and he was left with a
not unpleasant earthy odor. He ran along the edge of the
rutted road so that he could move to cover if the search
party came his way. His breathing was easy and he
concentrated on putting distance between him and the
nerve-racking scene he’d just left behind.
After forty minutes of running at this pace he came to a
major road, which he recognized from his earlier
reconnaissance as Chongqing Ring Road. Traffic was light
at this hour, but he managed to flag down a taxi heading
in the direction of Chongqing center and told the driver
to take him to the Chongqing New World Hotel.
“You mean the one on Congbai Road, over by the river?”
“Yes. The one built into the cliffs near the business
center of town.”
“All right. Where are you from? Are you American?” The
cab driver was eyeing him suspiciously in the rear view
mirror. There was a strong smell of garlic in the closed
cab that made breathing unpleasant.
Logan was also having trouble with the driver’s strong
Bashu-accented Mandarin, but he was getting sixty percent
of it. “Yes, American. I’m here on business.”
“Business? What business brings you out here so early?”
Logan stuck with the cover story he had concocted before
beginning his trip. “I build boats, and my company is
scouting out a location for a boat yard near Chongqing.
Anyway I like to see a place at all hours to get a good
feeling for it before I make an investment. I hired a car
to take me out here, but then the driver ran off and left
“Did you pay him first?”
Logan tried his best to look sheepish, and then admitted
that he had. “Yes, he insisted that I pay him when I got
out to have a look around.”
“Did you tell him to wait for you?”
“Of course. I told him I’d only be five or ten minutes.”
What do you think about this review?
1 comment posted.
Re: A CIA team has to fight a massive hacking attack
Thanks for the review and introduction to this book.
(Kathleen Bylsma 4:15pm August 21)
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