Computers and information networks at the National Defense University (NDU), the Joint Chiefs military education school at Fort McNair in Washington, were hacked and damaged by unknown attackers, defense officials said.
The attacks, described by officials only as “malicious activity,” caused the university to shut down all its network servers and replace laptop computers after the activity was detected last month. The costs were high, officials said.
Officials close to the situation said the computer intrusions were identified during routine maintenance and led to suspicions that the hackers had planted clandestine “trap doors” into the system that would allow them future access, or would facilitate computer attacks.
The only way to ensure the security of the systems was to replace them, we are told.
The shutdown forced the university’s faculty and students to rely on personal e-mail and laptops, limiting work at the school.
NDU spokesman Dave Thomas declined to comment when asked about the hacking but said some laptops were replaced for faculty members.
Officials would not say where the attacks originated, but the shutdown of the entire computer network at NDU lasted from Dec. 18 until earlier this week. Official suspicions are focused on Chinese hackers, based on similar attacks on Pentagon and military computer networks.
Chinese-origin computer attacks, most likely government-sponsored action by hackers, crippled information systems at the Naval War College in Rhode Island in November and forced a similar collegewide shutdown.
Chinese hackers also were involved in the electronic theft in 2005 of hundreds of evaluation reports on Air Force officers, ranging from generals to captains. The information in the reports would be valuable to Chinese intelligence for its targeted agent recruitment efforts.
The U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of Defense Department computer security, issued an alert Nov. 17, calling for raising the security alert level for about 12,000 Pentagon computer networks and 5 million computers.
The United States thinks an air strike Monday in southern Somalia may have wounded an al Qaeda-trained leader of the most violent militia that helped seize the capital, Mogadishu, earlier this year.
Defenses sources said Aden Hashi Ayro, who led the Hizbul Shabaab, a violent army of young Islamists within the Somalian Islamic Courts Union, “is thought to have been wounded.” The Islamic Courts Union captured the capital last year, but a combined Ethiopian-Somalian government force routed the Islamists last month and regained Mogadishu.
The sources said the United States obtained bloody clothes at the scene where five to 10 al Qaeda-linked suspects were killed.
The sources declined to say how the clothing was obtained, but one source said U.S. commandos were operating in Somalia.
Ayro is no small fish. He was trained in one of Osama bin Laden’s terror camps in Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the hard-line Taliban regime. He operated with al Qaeda members in Somalia and was thought to have associated with the three main targets of Monday’s attack: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani.
Mohammed and Nabhan are wanted by the United States on suspicion of planning and carrying out the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Al-Sudani is an explosives specialist suspected of ties to al Qaeda.
Ayro was quickly moving up the chain of command among Islamists in Somalia. The United States viewed him as perhaps the future leader of al Qaeda in the region, a post held by Mohammed.
A U.S. official in Nairobi told reporters yesterday that none of the top three targets was killed.
Army Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, told Congress recently that the NSA is struggling to deal with a large volume of foreign language intercepts on terrorism.
Gen. Alexander said there is a backlog of untranslated electronic intelligence leads on terrorists that has grown since 2001.
“Unfortunately, it is a very labor intensive exercise to sift through large volumes of foreign language data and painstakingly attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff,” he said in written answers to questions from senators.
“This dilemma is compounded by the fact that the target set has expanded exponentially since 2001 in terms of geographic reach and languages used,” he said. “Today’s backlog is no longer confined to Arabic and its multiple dialects, but also includes a variety of other less commonly taught languages, where linguists eligible for security clearances are in short supply.”
Gen. Alexander said spying on “vague and fragmentary” terrorist communications is only one step in foiling attacks. “It is more likely that a combination of intelligence sources will be necessary to prevent a terrorist attack,” he said, warning that al Qaeda is still plotting “catastrophic” attacks.
“What [signals intelligence] can do is work hand-in-glove with other intelligence agencies, the military and law enforcement to enable key takedowns, so that the details of a plot can be uncovered through interrogation and forensics exploitation,” he said.
“That being said, the translation backlog can prevent the timely delivery of key information to NSA’s customers and stall development efforts against new targets.”
NSA currently is hiring linguists capable of translating “GWOT languages,” he said, using the Pentagon acronym for the global war on terrorism.
Lots of laughs
Soldiers in Iraq haven’t lost their sense of humor. A few of them created a cartoon strip that pokes fun at colleagues and allies.
Of the many Army officers who come to Baghdad to write “lessons learned” reports, a cartoon shows a soldier flying in on one plane and quickly leaving on another.
“You see them at the end of every month,” the caption says. “Teams from the CTCs, Center for Army Lessons Learned, and the Pentagon. They are here to help with advice while collecting combat pay and combat patches. They land in one plane and leave for home on the next one leaving. They slap on a combat patch and make up some war stories on the way to the next bird. You know who you are.”
Another cartoon pokes fun at Air Force personnel on the tarmac.
“Don’t let the cool glasses and baggy clothes confuse you. These guys are not dancing. They are communicating through sign language. They have cool names like Stabs, Chum, Snapper and Radar. They fly through the sky with the greatest of ease and talk about it later at Al Udeid over three beers.”
Al Udeid is the vast U.S. air base in Qatar in the Persian Gulf.
Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Mr. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Mr. Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.