White House Edges Closer to Cyberwar Policy

Don't hold your breath, but the administration is getting closer to developing a defense for the National Information Infrastructure

P> The administration may announce in the next few weeks its plans to develop nationwide protection of the information superhighway, said White House official Rich Wilhelm.

Also, President Bill Clinton has asked the industry-dominated National Security Telecommunications Advisory Council to study possible defenses against foreign hackers seeking to wreck the phone network, oil, gas and train transportation systems, and other computer-dependent networks, said Adm. Mike McConnell, who retired March 2 as director of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md.

The NSTAC is a government-sponsored organization of top telecom executives. It was formed during the Cold War to armor the nation's communications networks against nuclear attack.

Government officials, industry executives and Washington-based privacy advocates are skeptical that anything will come from these moves to develop a national cyberspace defense policy.

Formation of any nationwide plan "will require an unprecedented degree of government-industry partnership," as well as consultation with privacy advocates, the health-care industry, the electric utilities and many others, said Wilhelm, who coordinates cyberwar discussions among senior administration officials.

"The definition of the problem is so vague, and the interests at stake so diverse, that it is unlikely there will be a resolution anytime in the forseeable future," said Stephen Aftergood, an analyst at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.

The infotech industry has already shown its reluctance to cooperate with government security plans by fighting hard against the White House's effort to control the spread of data-scrambling encryption technology. Government officials want to prevent the technology from being used by criminals, terrorists and foreign companies, while industry officials fear that any government control will cost them revenues in the international marketplace.

Pressure to develop the cyberwar defense policy has come from John Deutch, director of central intelligence, and John White, deputy secretary of defense. For example, Deutch and White prompted the Justice Department to set up a high-level working group to study the issue following the collapse last year of an effort by Deutch and White to win Clinton's approval to develop a cyberspace defense plan.

Other senior officials addressing the issue are Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.

"We need to strengthen our government-civilian partnership to protect the National Information Infrastructure," Kerrey told a March 8 conference at the National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington. On controversies such as the debate over government control of encryption, "the private sector [will] have to yield a bit. We've got a nation to defend," he said. But the government could offer tax incentives or regulatory changes to promote industry cooperation, he said.

Pending the development of a national defense policy, government and industry officials identified several short-term measures to head off any cyberwar threat.

The government should complete a detailed study of the likely threats and the existing weaknesses in the information superhighway that may be exploited by hackers and other threats, said Roger Molander, a senior analyst at the Washington office of the Rand Corp., Santa Monica, Calif.

There should be more sharing of information about threats and vulnerabilities between industry and government, said Wilhelm.

The government and industry should resolve the encryption controversy, helping boost the nation's anti-hacker defenses while protecting law enforcement, said Kerrey.

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