U.S. Steps Up Effort on Digital Defenses
This article was reported by David E. Sanger, John Markoff and Thom Shanker and written by Mr. Sanger.
When American forces in Iraq wanted to lure members of Al Qaeda into a trap, they hacked into one of the group’s computers and altered information that drove them into American gun sights.
When President George W. Bush ordered new ways to slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb last year, he approved a plan for an experimental covert program — its results still unclear — to bore into their computers and undermine the project.
And the Pentagon has commissioned military contractors to develop a highly classified replica of the Internet of the future. The goal is to simulate what it would take for adversaries to shut down the country’s power stations, telecommunications and aviation systems, or freeze the financial markets — in an effort to build better defenses against such attacks, as well as a new generation of online weapons.
Just as the invention of the atomic bomb changed warfare and deterrence 64 years ago, a new international race has begun to develop cyberweapons and systems to protect against them.
Thousands of daily attacks on federal and private computer systems in the United States — many from China and Russia, some malicious and some testing chinks in the patchwork of American firewalls — have prompted the Obama administration to review American strategy.
President Obama is expected to propose a far larger defensive effort in coming days, including an expansion of the $17 billion, five-year program that Congress approved last year, the appointment of a White House official to coordinate the effort, and an end to a running bureaucratic battle over who is responsible for defending against cyberattacks.
But Mr. Obama is expected to say little or nothing about the nation’s offensive capabilities, on which the military and the nation’s intelligence agencies have been spending billions. In interviews over the past several months, a range of military and intelligence officials, as well as outside experts, have described a huge increase in the sophistication of American cyberwarfare capabilities.
Because so many aspects of the American effort to develop cyberweapons and define their proper use remain classified, many of those officials declined to speak on the record. The White House declined several requests for interviews or to say whether Mr. Obama as a matter of policy supports or opposes the use of American cyberweapons.
The most exotic innovations under consideration would enable a Pentagon programmer to surreptitiously enter a computer server in Russia or China, for example, and destroy a “botnet” — a potentially destructive program that commandeers infected machines into a vast network that can be clandestinely controlled — before it could be unleashed in the United States.
Or American intelligence agencies could activate malicious code that is secretly embedded on computer chips when they are manufactured, enabling the United States to take command of an enemy’s computers by remote control over the Internet. That, of course, is exactly the kind of attack officials fear could be launched on American targets, often through Chinese-made chips or computer servers.
So far, however, there are no broad authorizations for American forces to engage in cyberwar. The invasion of the Qaeda computer in Iraq several years ago and the covert activity in Iran were each individually authorized by Mr. Bush. When he issued a set of classified presidential orders in January 2008 to organize and improve America’s online defenses, the administration could not agree on how to write the authorization.
A principal architect of that order said the issue had been passed on to the next president, in part because of the complexities of cyberwar operations that, by necessity, would most likely be conducted on both domestic and foreign Internet sites. After the controversy surrounding domestic spying, Mr. Bush’s aides concluded, the Bush White House did not have the credibility or the political capital to deal with the subject.
An "order of magnitude" greater than 9/11
Cyberwar would not be as lethal as atomic war, of course, nor as visibly dramatic. But when Mike McConnell, the former director of national intelligence, briefed Mr. Bush on the threat in May 2007, he argued that if a single large American bank were successfully attacked “it would have an order-of-magnitude greater impact on the global economy” than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mr. McConnell, who left office three months ago, warned last year that “the ability to threaten the U.S. money supply is the equivalent of today’s nuclear weapon.”
The scenarios developed last year for the incoming president by Mr. McConnell and his coordinator for cybersecurity, Melissa Hathaway, went further. They described vulnerabilities including an attack on Wall Street and one intended to bring down the nation’s electric power grid. Most were extrapolations of attacks already tried.
Today, Ms. Hathaway is the primary author of White House cyberstrategy and has been traveling the country talking in vague terms about recent, increasingly bold attacks on the computer networks that keep the country running. Government officials will not discuss the details of a recent attack on the air transportation network, other than to say the attack never directly affected air traffic control systems.
Still, the specter of an attack that could blind air traffic controllers and, perhaps, the military’s aerospace defense networks haunts military and intelligence officials. (The saving grace of the air traffic control system, officials say, is that it is so old that it is not directly connected to the Internet.)