- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2003

A computer worm forced the State Department to shut down its database of terrorists and criminals for nine hours on Tuesday, disrupting the issuance of U.S. visas at embassies and consulates overseas.

That database, known as the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), is used to check every visa applicant. It is part of the department’s intranet unclassified network.

The CLASS system was infected by the “Welchia” worm, designed to exploit a flaw in recent versions of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows software.

The database contains about 15 million records from the FBI and the State Department, as well as immigration, drug-enforcement and intelligence agencies.

That includes “110,000 names of known or possible terrorists,” said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau.

After discovering the worm around noon on Tuesday, “our computer experts suspended our intranet service between the department in Washington and embassies and consulates abroad,” he said.

Although “Welchia” would not destroy data, the measure was taken “in order to quarantine and protect our name-check system, as well as all other unclassified systems overseas,” Mr. Patt said.

He noted that the classified system was not infected and remained operational.

“During the day, our experts scrubbed and checked all parts of the unclassified system, and by 9 p.m. the visa name check was back online and running normally,” he said.

The department’s unclassified electronic communication with posts around the world also was affected by the shutdown because e-mail was part of the intranet system.

The problem caused disruptions mainly in Latin America, Western Europe and East Asia. In other parts of the world, offices were closed for the evening or not yet open for the next working day.

Mr. Patt said that not all visa-related operations were suspended during the CLASS outage. Posts could continue to accept applications but could not make decisions before a name-check was performed. Applicants whose names had been run through the system and were eligible could be issued visas.

Similar computer problems occurred from time to time, but Mr. Patt said this time it took longer than usual to resolve it.

“But it didn’t damage the system in any way,” he said.

The State Department issues about 7 million visas a year. It has made a substantial investment in the CLASS system since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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