The hackers you haven't heard about

Here's one weapon in the Defense Department's arsenal you may not have heard much about: its team of cyber warriors.

Published April 19, 2005 5:36PM (EDT)

Here's one weapon in the Defense Department's arsenal you may not have heard much about: its team of cyber warriors. Wired reports that officers from U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, acknowledged the existence of a unit called the Joint Functional Component Command for Network Warfare during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month. Strip away the jargon, and you have the key words: network warfare, also known as hacking.

Part of the network warfare command's job is defensive: The unit protected Defense Department computer systems from an estimated 75,000 hacking attemps last year. But President Bush signed a secret directive in July of 2002 calling for the development of Computer Network Attack protocols, specifically to enable the network warfare unit to launch cyber attacks against enemy computer systems.

The ability to launch a cyber attack might come in handy if a terrorist group attempted to shut down an electric power grid, departing special adviser to the president on cyberspace security Richard A. Clarke told the Washington Post in 2003. Former U.S. Marine intelligence officer Dan Verton told Wired of some other likely uses: taking down a known enemy's command and control systems, interrupting an enemy group's communications, or preventing the firing of surface-to-air missiles. Recently, cyber attack has also been suggested as one way to prevent anti-U.S. terrorist groups from using Web sites for recruitment, or to shut down sites featuring online video clips of terrorists beheading Americans.

Some experts believe that secret computer network attacks are already underway. Air Force Maj. Gen. and former computer network attack commander John Bradley said in 2002: "I've got to tell you we spend more time on the computer network attack business than we do on computer network defense because so many people at very high levels are interested." And Lexington Institute defense analyst Loren Thompson told Federal Computer Week in 2003 that he didn't buy the Defense Department's denials, saying that given the number of attempted cyber attacks on the Pentagon each year, it would be "unbelievable if the U.S. is not mounting similar operations in response. No one can seriously believe we're not using the same sorts of operations against our adversaries."

Though it has acknowledged the existence of the network warfare unit, the Pentagon has never copped to actually launching a cyber attack. That may be because, for all its potential uses, cyber-warfare raises a number of uncomfortable questions. It's one thing if you know who your enemy is, but it can be quite difficult to determine what group is behind a Web site, where such a group is headquartered, what its national affiliations are, and whether or not it has military capabilities -- or is just a group of teenagers playing war games.

And even if rules of engagement are developed to address problems like these, some wonder about the dangers of setting a precedent with this new kind of warfare. In his 2003 conversation with the Washington Post, Richard Clarke touched on this concern: "There also is an issue, frankly, that's similar to the strategic nuclear issue which is: Do you ever want to do it? Do you want to legitimize that kind of weaponry?"

So far, the project is so shrouded in secrecy that no one seems to know how the government is grappling with questions like Clarke's. It's easy to see why much of the project would need to remain classified -- but you have to think that the Rumsfeld Pentagon hasn't forgotten about Pointdexter's Total Information Awareness debacle and would be extra motivated to keep its new cyber-invasion capabilities completely off the radar.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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