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Officials Warn US Is Unprepared For Cyber Attacks

December 19, 2008

Officials said on Thursday – after participating in a two-day “cyberwar” simulation – that the United States is unprepared for a major hostile attack against vital computer networks, government and industry.

Participants said the game involved 230 representatives of government defense and security agencies, private companies and civil groups. It revealed flaws in leadership, planning, communications and other issues.

Nearly a year ago, President George W. Bush launched a cybersecurity initiative, which officials said has helped shore up U.S. computer defenses, but still falls short.

Senior vice president Mark Gerencser of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting service, which ran the simulation, said there isn’t a response or a game plan. “There isn’t really anybody in charge,” he said.

“We’re way behind where we need to be now,” Said Democratic U.S. Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island, who chairs the homeland security subcommittee on cybersecurity.

He said dire consequences of a successful attack could include failure of banking or national electrical systems.

“This is equivalent in my mind to before September 11 … we were awakened to the threat on the morning after September 11.”

Modern cyberwarfare attacks could come from Russian sympathizers on Estonia and Georgia, considering U.S. businesses and government offices have faced intrusions and attacks in the past.

Both government and industry must spend billions of dollars to improve security, according to U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the Democratic chairman of the intelligence subcommittee on technical intelligence.

The war game simulated a dramatic surge in computer attacks at a time of economic vulnerability, and required participants to find ways to mitigate the attacks using real-life knowledge of tactics and procedures where they work.

Officials called it the broadest of such exercises in terms of representation across government agencies and industrial sectors.

“Cyberattacks will become a routine warfare tactic to degrade command systems before a traditional attack, in addition to threats posed by criminal or terrorist attackers,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who addressed the participants at the end of the exercise.

International law and military doctrines need to be updated to deal with computer attacks, Chertoff warned.

“We know that if someone shoots missiles at us, they’re going to get a certain kind of response. What happens if it comes over the Internet?,” he said.

Chertoff and Gerencser expressed caution over suggestions earlier this month calling for the appointment of a White House “cybersecurity czar” to oversee efforts.

Ruppersberger disagreed, stating that one person was needed to take charge of efforts and to secure the president’s ear.

People close to president-elect Barack Obama’s transition team say that Obama understands the importance of bolstering cybersecurity, Ruppersberger said.

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