By Siobhan Gorman
September 20, 2007
WASHINGTON - In a major shift, the National Security Agency is drawing
up plans for a new domestic assignment: helping protect government and
private communications networks from cyberattacks and infiltration by
terrorists and hackers, according to current and former intelligence
From electricity grids to subways to nuclear power plants, the United
States depends more than ever on Internet-based control systems that
could be manipulated remotely in a terrorist attack, security
The plan calls for the NSA to work with the Department of Homeland
Security and other federal agencies to monitor such networks to prevent
unauthorized intrusion, according to those with knowledge of what is
known internally as the "Cyber Initiative." Details of the project are
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, a former NSA chief, is
coordinating the initiative. It will be run by the Department of
Homeland Security, which has primary responsibility for protecting
domestic infrastructure, including the Internet, current and former
At the outset, up to 2,000 people -- from the Department of Homeland
Security, the NSA and other agencies -- could be assigned to the
initiative, said a senior intelligence official who spoke on condition
The NSA's new domestic role would require a revision of the agency's
charter, the senior intelligence official said. Up to now, the NSA's
cyberdefense arsenal has been used to guard the government's classified
networks -- not the unclassified networks that now are the
responsibility of other federal agencies.
NSA officials declined to discuss specific programs but said
cybersecurity is a critical component of what they do.
"We have a strong history in information assurance and national
security," said NSA spokeswoman Andrea Martino, who added that the
agency will continue to play a role in cyberdefense.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said that "as the lead agency
responsible for assuring the security, resiliency and reliability of the
nation's information technology and communications infrastructure, our
department is working to unify further and integrate the security
framework for cyber operations throughout the federal government."
Since the existence of its warrantless domestic eavesdropping program
was revealed in 2005, the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have
been mired in a controversy over domestic intelligence activities. The
Homeland Security Department recently came under fire amid Bush
administration plans to broadly expand the use of satellite imagery to
assist in federal, state and local law enforcement.
Current and former intelligence officials, including several NSA
veterans, warned that the agency's venture into domestic computer and
communications networks -- even if limited to protecting them -- could
raise new privacy concerns. To protect a network, the government must
constantly monitor it.
"This will create a major uproar," predicted Ira Winkler, a former NSA
analyst who is now a cybersecurity consultant.
"If you're going to do cybersecurity, you have to spy on Americans to
secure Americans," said a former government official familiar with NSA
operations. "It would be a very major step."
A former senior NSA official said the difference between monitoring
networks in order to defend them and monitoring them to collect
intelligence is very small.
The former officials spoke on condition of anonymity to protect
relationships with intelligence agencies.
Another former NSA official said that if the government wants to prevent
cyberattacks, it makes sense to tap the agency's skills.
"I've got to be able to at least look at something to determine: Do I
have a threat or don't I have a threat?" the former NSA official said.
"It's important that you have the best thinkers with the deepest
experience working these problems on behalf of the nation."
O. Sami Saydjari, a cybersecurity consultant, said the privacy concerns
are real. He said intelligence agencies should be part of the solution,
because they have the expertise needed to develop a national
cybersecurity system, but that privacy advocates also should be part of
the planning process.
Computer specialists have warned for years about cyberattacks. But
experts say efforts to guard against them have not gained momentum at
the national level, at least in part because the public envisions a
cyberattack as nothing more than a big computer crash.
Those who monitor such threats said the danger has grown as control
systems for potential terrorist targets have become increasingly
connected to the Internet.
A cyberattack could cut access to power, banking and telecommunications
systems across much of the country, said Saydjari, president of the
Cyber Defense Agency, a consulting firm.
"The hostile groups have caught on to most of the things we're worried
about," said Scott Borg, director of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a
nonprofit research institute that advises the government and the private
sector. "It's been remarkable in the last, really, two years how much
all these things that people like me have been worried about have been
bit by bit rediscovered and reinvented in the hacker world."
Potential cyberattacks are being discussed in chat rooms in languages
that include English, Arabic, Russian and Punjabi, he said. Terrorists
and others already know many of the country's vulnerabilities, Borg
said, adding that he is extremely concerned about the ability to hack
into computer systems controlling nuclear power plants.
A government task force issued a stark warning this year that the threat
of a cyberattack to U.S. infrastructure, which can be launched from a
computer anywhere in the world, is "very real and growing rapidly." In
June, an alleged Chinese hacking effort shut down e-mail in Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates' office for several days.
Simulation exercises, such as one dubbed Dark Angel and sponsored by the
group Professionals for Cyber Defense, showed in 2003 how a cyberattack
could shut down most of the nation's power grid, Saydjari said.
There is growing interest among hackers in capturing information on
"smart cards" that allow access to buildings and critical computer
systems and using that information to gain access to the system,
according to Borg.
Cybersecurity has long been an orphaned responsibility in the federal
government, with various agencies having some part in it. The NSA has
largely been left out, because its focus has been on protecting military
networks. Proposals to break off the NSA's information security branch
and assign it a broader role beyond the intelligence agencies fell flat,
former NSA officials say.
Amit Yoran, the Homeland Security Department's first chief of
cybersecurity, said in an interview that while the government has made
progress, federal efforts have been "somewhat spotty" overall.
Among the main challenges, he said, is that the Homeland Security
Department has been given responsibility for the problem but lacks the
authority and expertise to compel other agencies and the private sector
to follow its lead.
The new cybersecurity effort aims to build, in part, on an existing NSA
program, code-named Turbulence, which has had a troubled start, the
senior intelligence official said.
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