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Hacking the Bad Guys
Comments () | Published February 1, 2010

“If the capability to exploit a communications device exists,” McConnell said, “we have to assume that our enemies either have it or are trying to develop it.”

He described the problem in words that would resonate with Bush: “If the 9/11 perpetrators had focused on a single US bank through cyberattack, and it had been successful, it would have had an order-of-magnitude greater impact on the US economy than the physical attack.”

Bush turned to Henry Paulson, his Treasury Secretary and the former CEO of Goldman Sachs: “Is this true, Hank?”

Paulson said it was. He told Bush that his worst fear at Goldman had been that a hacker might play with the data of a major financial institution. Corrupt it. Undermine it.

Bush stood up. “This is our competitive advantage for the next 70 to 100 years,” he said. “Certainly we have to do what’s necessary to protect it.”

“McConnell,” Bush said, turning to his spy chief, “you brought this in here. You’ve got 30 days to develop a plan.”

McConnell’s plan quickly morphed into a classified program to shrink the thousands of points at which government computer systems were physically connected to the public Internet to fewer than a hundred. The administration would fend off any electronic onslaught by bringing up the drawbridge. McConnell also wanted NSA to stand point on defense of military and intelligence networks by monitoring their connections for signs of hackers.

It took months of interagency negotiations and bureaucratic turf wars, but in the end the ambitious plan earned an apt name: the Comprehensive National Cyber Security Initiative. Never before had the government’s intelligence and security agencies taken such an active role in policing the Internet. The plan remained classified because, in addition to the defensive strategy, Bush authorized an offensive component—the ability to attack threats to America in cyberspace.

McConnell could congratulate himself for getting through to Bush. But it wasn’t the first time a veteran security official had warned the commander-in-chief about the threat to American security lurking in the digital cloud. The path to McConnell’s fateful meeting in the Oval Office had been blazed almost a quarter century earlier, when a fellow admiral convinced his commander-in-chief to pay attention to a new problem.

September 1984: The Roosevelt Room

Ronald Reagan made only one public appearance on Monday, September 17. Before cameras and journalists, the President received the report of the US-Japan Advisory Commission, a wide-ranging policy review headed by Hewlett-Packard chairman David Packard. The only remarks Reagan made were to turn the meeting over to Packard, who spoke about the importance of Japanese-American cooperation and then read a long note from his Japanese co-chairman. “Well, God bless you all. Thank you very much,” Reagan said, and wrapped up the meeting for the cameras.

The President’s rather banal public schedule stood in contrast to the momentous decisions playing out behind the scenes that morning. His deputy national-security adviser, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, had crafted a highly technical and ambitious national-security order for the President’s signature. It was a plan for government to defend a vulnerable national asset—cyberspace.

It was fitting that the head of a major US technology company was in the White House that morning. Poindexter had pointed out that the only way to secure the nation’s expanding and little-understood computer networks was to forge a new alliance with the private sector. American corporations, after all, were the source of the nation’s technical innovation and owned these networks. One of Poindexter’s biggest concerns was protecting the government information that moved over them, particularly the details about a nascent counterterrorism operation he had been overseeing since the previous year.

On the morning of October 23, 1983, a suicide truck bomber had plowed into the barracks of a Marine unit stationed in Beirut, who were there as part of an international peacekeeping force to deal with the ravages of civil war in Lebanon. The bomber killed 241 American servicemembers, most of whom were sleeping in their bunks. The Beirut attacks spurred Poindexter’s compulsive need to make order out of chaos, which was the operative word in Lebanon.

After the bombing, investigators revealed that since May, the intelligence community had fielded more than 100 warnings about car bombings in Beirut. But no one had given the alerts any particular weight, nor had they been shared with the military chain of command. An earlier attack on the US embassy in April had killed 63 people, including most of the CIA station in Beirut.

A forensic analysis by the FBI revealed evidence of an innovative terror group in the city trying to fashion devastating bombs out of everyday materials. But the FBI’s findings were never shared outside the bureaucratic silos of the CIA or the State Department. They were just one more signal thrown onto a pile that eventually included one dreadful message: an NSA intercept of terrorist communications that actually indicated the Marine-barracks attack but that military commanders didn’t receive from their subordinates until days after the bombing.

Poindexter was one of the Navy’s rising stars, at the top of his Annapolis class of 1958, and seemingly destined for the service’s top job, chief of naval operations. His ascent had been orderly, but when he arrived at the White House in 1981 as a military assistant, the lack of consistency and discipline there appalled him. He told more than one friend it was like setting out to sea with no orders. In the fallout of the Beirut surprise attack, he saw an opportunity.

Poindexter had come to the White House with a mandate to get things there under control. His primary task, per the President’s top security advisers, was to update the White House Situation Room with modern telecommunications. He’d set up a $14-million Crisis Management Center in the Old Executive Office Building, installing videoconferencing systems, wall-mounted video screens, and links to the classified systems that ran diplomatic, military, and intelligence cable traffic. Poindexter turned this technological outpost into a data center for coordinated counterterrorism. This would be the hub of a new enterprise aimed at breaking down barriers and sharing information across protected turf.

Reagan had promoted Poindexter to deputy national-security adviser only a week before the Beirut bombing. Now the admiral was in a position to make people move. The attacks sharpened everyone’s focus.

But there was a problem. With all of these new linkages among the intelligence community, the State Department, and the Pentagon, a foreign power, particularly the Soviet Union, had more chances to hack into the network. Poindexter wanted to stop any hemorrhage of data before it happened.

His cyberdefense plan, labeled National Security Decision Directive 145, laid bare the problem in its first paragraph: “The technology to exploit these electronic systems is widespread and is used extensively by foreign nations and can be employed, as well, by terrorist groups and criminal elements.” Both the government and American business were “targets of foreign exploitation.”

The year was fitting: 1984. America was gripped by stories—some fanciful, some real—about the apocalyptic dangers looming in the vast network of wires and cables that carried an increasing flow of bits and bytes. Only a year earlier, the movie War Games had told the story of a precocious high-school student who used the computer in his bedroom to find a back door into the military’s central computer system, nearly triggering an automatic launch of the US nuclear arsenal.

The movie might have taken some liberties, but it had a mirror in reality. The same year, the FBI was on the trail of a band of computer hackers who had penetrated systems at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a large bank headquartered in Los Angeles, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Calling themselves the 414s, the hackers were eventually found to be a group of six teenagers who drew their name from the area code of their hometown, Milwaukee. The boys had met in a local Explorer Scout troop.

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