- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The United States remains vulnerable to a devastating cyber-attack by international terrorists, including members of al Qaeda, who have sought ways to target electric power grids, transportation systems and financial institutions, the chairman of a Senate subcommittee said yesterday.

“Just imagine what chaos would result if a cyber-attack were coordinated with a more conventional strike, such as bombing a highly populated area and then tampering with emergency systems to thwart hospitals and first-responders caring for wounded civilians,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security.

“Dramatic increases in cybersecurity intrusions and in the sophistication of computer viruses make it all the more imperative that we do everything possible to address this underpublicized, yet very real threat to our homeland,” said the Arizona Republican.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General John G. Malcolm said that although most cyber-attacks in the United States are not caused by terrorists, attacks on critical infrastructure have the potential for large-scale disruptions and mass casualties, and, depending on the motivation of the attacker, could be linked to cyberterrorism.

Mr. Malcolm, who oversees the department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, gave several examples of critical infrastructures that could be targeted, including telecommunications networks, transportation systems and services, water-supply systems, energy systems, financial institutions and emergency services, such as medical, police, fire and rescue.

“While we have been fortunate enough not yet to experience a devastating act of cyberterrorism or a crippling attack on a critical infrastructure, the hard lessons of September 11 teach us that preparation is critical,” he said.

FBI Deputy Assistant Director Keith Lourdeau, who leads the bureau’s cyber division, testified that as the nation’s economy becomes more dependent on computers and the Internet becomes a more integral part of society, new digital vulnerabilities make U.S. networked systems potential targets to an increasing number of people, including terrorists.

“To date, cyber-attacks by terrorists or persons affiliated with them have largely been limited to relatively unsophisticated efforts,” Mr. Lourdeau said. “However, increasing technical competency in these groups is resulting in an emerging capability for network-based attacks.

“Terrorist groups have proven themselves capable of carrying out acts of violence against our nation on a grand scale,” he said. “The more familiar they become with computers and their potential as a viable weapon against us, the more likely they will try to acquire the skills necessary to carry out a cyberterrorist event.”

Mr. Lourdeau described the cyberterrorism threat as rapidly expanding because “the number of actors with the ability to utilize computers for illegal, harmful and possibly devastating purposes is on the rise.” He said terrorists have shown a clear interest in developing basic hacking tools and predicted that they will either develop or hire hackers to carry out cyber-attacks.

To confront and combat cyberterrorism, Mr. Malcolm said, the Justice Department has focused not only on developing internal expertise, but also on establishing partnerships with other federal agencies, state and local police officials and industry organizations. Because cyber-attacks frequently transcend geographic boundaries, he said, the effort has not been confined to the United States.

“It is vitally important to have foreign counterparts who are technologically capable, who are accessible and responsive, and who have the necessary legal authority to cooperate with us and assist in our investigations and prosecutions in the event of a transborder cyber-incident,” he said.

“We are working hard to build strong relationships with foreign counterparts so that the framework will be in place to quickly respond to cybercrimes, including large-scale cyber-incidents.”

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