Infowar Disputes Stall Defense Policy

The CIA's new chief and top intelligence officials say the nation's electronic infrastructure is exposed to destructive computer attacks -- even as a draft national information security policy is caught in a Washington sand trap

n June 3, Iranian computer-terrorists will use the global Internet to sever the United States' electronic spinal cord - that is, according to the script of a top-level war game to be staged by Pentagon officials.

The fictional Iranian hackers will cripple the phone system, disable the power grid, confuse the air traffic control system and generally wreak havoc with the nation's most vital computer networks.

The cyberwar game was designed by the RAND research center in Santa Monica, Calif. Pentagon officials are organizing it to raise the profile of what many consider a dangerous, impending and real threat, and they have invited 70 senior federal infotech officials to hear the case.

"I don't think there is as much understanding of the threat as we need to have.... [so] this war game is oriented using Iran as the bad guy getting into our [computer] systems," said Emmett Paige, assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence.

Paige's war game reflects alarm among senior officials that government and industry cannot cope with foreign hacker attacks -- dubbed information warfare or cyberwar -- that could cost lives and billions of dollars.

The potential for such attacks is "a very, very big national problem that is very, very expensive to do anything about," said John Deutch, the new head of national intelligence and the CIA, to a panel of senior government security officials, according to leaked minutes of the April 24 meeting of the Security Policy Board.

Deutch's deputy, Adm. William Studeman, voiced the same concern in a May 16 conference. "In the near term, other targets [of information warfare attacks] can include U.S. telecommunications, financial systems, .... the stock exchange, the Internal Revenue system of the United States, social security, banking, strategically important companies, research and development, air traffic control systems and high-tech databases, all of which are vulnerable today from the outside," he told the conference, held at Fort McNair, Wash.

But a draft proposal by DoD officials calling for the White House to draw up a national computer defense policy is stuck in a political sand trap, say defense and congressional officials. "It gives [the White House] a headache... they don't want to address it [because] it is hard, complicated and there's a lot of money involved," said a congressional staff member.

Getting a new national policy "will take leadership, compromise, sensitivity, momentum and frequently preferring to do what is right rather than what is politic," said Studeman, who is due to retire soon. "I hope that we are up to the challenge before a major justifying event should take place in this country... we have an obligation to raise the public's awareness," he said.

"I don't believe there is a complete understanding [of the threat] across the federal government, to include even within the Department of Defense," Paige said at the May 16 meeting.

Gen. Ronald Fogelman, the U.S. Air Force's Chief of Staff, echoed Studeman and Paige, saying at the meeting that "information warfare will be the nation's bodyguard... [but while] everybody wants to talk about it, nobody wants to put meat on the bones."

What makes the issue so difficult is that any public debate about national information security policy will pit civil liberties proponents against lawyers against major commercial interests against national security officials, said Studeman.

For example, "we need a comprehensive legal framework to protect information systems [with better] hacker prosecution laws [and] better definition of computer crime," he said. But the government's efforts to promote its Clipper data-scrambling technology -- which protects private conversations yet allows court-ordered wiretaps -- has run into a buzzsaw of criticism. Officials from the information technology industry say Clipper could damage valuable exports, and proponents of civil liberties say Clipper is an unwarranted intrusion into citizens' privacy.

Studeman also cited the role of the National Security Agency, based in Fort Meade, Md., which carries out the nation's electronic eavesdropping mission. Studeman said the agency should continue to provide its computer-defense expertise to federal agencies and commercial companies, but acknowledged that "this relationship is viewed by some [civil liberties proponents] with grave suspicion."

To overcome these political, economic and civil-liberties controversies, "the president has to show leadership [and] the people who deal with competitiveness, defense, intelligence, law enforcement and diplomacy, essentially all have to be actors in the complex decisions" needed to form a national computer-defense policy, Studeman said.

White House officials played down the issue. "Attention is being paid where appropriate," said Jack Gibbons, science adviser to the president. "We can overreact to things such as [the bombing of] Oklahoma City and be a nation that is constantly afraid to look over its shoulder. I think that would be very inappropriate...I don't sense any new urgency, or a sense that we are suddenly susceptible to great problems," he said May 15.

David Banisar, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, says government concern about hacker attacks are exaggerated. Plenty of good commercially built computer-defense technology can be used to defeat any threats, he said. To ensure the technology is used, the government should relax its counterproductive control of data-scrambling gear, he said. Also, industry "has to be kicked in the ass [because] for some reason or another, they just don't [use the technology], " he said. For example, computer firms should be sued for installing faulty data-protection devices, just as car manufacturers are sued for installing faulty safety belts, he said.

No new laws are needed to defeat hackers, he said, adding that "the law is more than adequate, and the odds of making it any clearer now without doing damage [to civil liberties and the marketplace] are pretty minimal."

Pentagon and intelligence officials acknowledge the hurdles they face when trying to write up a national information-security doctrine. The issue is "ideally designed for the [government] not to be able to cope with it," Deutch said at the April 24 meeting. "All the issues stuck together create great difficulties. I guarantee you five, 10 and 15 years from now we will still be struggling for the technopolicies, legal [provisions] and organizational constructs," said Studeman.

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