By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 26, 2008
President Bush signed a directive this month that expands the
intelligence community's role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect
against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies' computer
The directive, whose content is classified, authorizes the intelligence
agencies, in particular the National Security Agency, to monitor the
computer networks of all federal agencies -- including ones they have
not previously monitored.
Until now, the government's efforts to protect itself from cyber-attacks
-- which run the gamut from hackers to organized crime to foreign
governments trying to steal sensitive data -- have been piecemeal. Under
the new initiative, a task force headed by the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence (ODNI) will coordinate efforts to identify the
source of cyber-attacks against government computer systems. As part of
that effort, the Department of Homeland Security will work to protect
the systems and the Pentagon will devise strategies for counterattacks
against the intruders.
There has been a string of attacks on networks at the State, Commerce,
Defense and Homeland Security departments in the past year and a half.
U.S. officials and cyber-security experts have said Chinese Web sites
were involved in several of the biggest attacks back to 2005, including
some at the country's nuclear-energy labs and large defense contractors.
The NSA has particular expertise in monitoring a vast, complex array of
communications systems -- traditionally overseas. The prospect of aiming
that power at domestic networks is raising concerns, just as the NSA's
role in the government's warrantless domestic-surveillance program has
"Agencies designed to gather intelligence on foreign entities should not
be in charge of monitoring our computer systems here at home," said Rep.
Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security
Committee. Lawmakers with oversight of homeland security and
intelligence matters say they have pressed the administration for months
The classified joint directive, signed Jan. 8 and called the National
Security Presidential Directive 54/Homeland Security Presidential
Directive 23, has not been previously disclosed. Plans to expand the
NSA's role in cyber-security were reported in the Baltimore Sun in
According to congressional aides and former White House officials with
knowledge of the program, the directive outlines measures collectively
referred to as the "cyber initiative," aimed at securing the
government's computer systems against attacks by foreign adversaries and
other intruders. It will cost billions of dollars, which the White House
is expected to request in its fiscal 2009 budget.
"The president's directive represents a continuation of our efforts to
secure government networks, protect against constant intrusion attempts,
address vulnerabilities and anticipate future threats," said White House
spokesman Scott Stanzel. He would not discuss the initiative's details.
The initiative foreshadows a policy debate over the proper role for
government as the Internet becomes more dangerous.
Supporters of cyber-security measures say the initiative falls short
because it doesn't include the private sector -- power plants,
refineries, banks -- where analysts say 90 percent of the threat exists.
"If you don't include industry in the mix, you're keeping one of your
eyes closed because the hacking techniques are likely the same across
government and commercial organizations," said Alan Paller, research
director at the SANS Institute, a Bethesda-based cyber-security group
that assists companies that face attacks. "If you're looking for needles
in the haystack, you need as much data as you can get because these are
really tiny needles, and bad guys are trying to hide the needles."
Under the initiative, the NSA, CIA and the FBI's Cyber Division will
investigate intrusions by monitoring Internet activity and, in some
cases, capturing data for analysis, sources said.
The Pentagon can plan attacks on adversaries' networks if, for example,
the NSA determines that a particular server in a foreign country needs
to be taken down to disrupt an attack on an information system critical
to the U.S. government. That could include responding to an attack
against a private-sector network, such as the telecom industry's,
Also, as part of its attempt to defend government computer systems, the
Department of Homeland Security will collect and monitor data on
intrusions, deploy technologies for preventing attacks and encrypt data.
It will also oversee the effort to reduce Internet portals across
government to 50 from 2,000, to make it easier to detect attacks.
"The government has taken a solid step forward in trying to develop
cyber-defenses," said Paul B. Kurtz, a security consultant and former
special adviser to the president on critical infrastructure protection.
Kurtz said the initiative's purpose is not to spy on Americans. "The
thrust here is to protect networks."
One of the key questions is whether it is necessary to read
communications to investigate an intrusion.
Ed Giorgio, a former NSA analyst who is now a security consultant for
ODNI, said, "If you're looking inside a DoD system and you see data
flows going to China, that ought to set off a red flag. You don't need
to scan the content to determine that."
But often, traffic analysis is not enough, some experts said. "Knowing
the content -- that a communication is sensitive -- allows proof
positive that something bad is going out of that computer," said one
cyber-security expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of
the initiative's sensitivity.
Allowing a spy agency to monitor domestic networks is worrisome, said
James X. Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and
Technology. "We're concerned that the NSA is claiming such a large role
over the security of unclassified systems," he said. "They are a spy
agency as well as a communications security agency. They operate in
total secrecy. That's not necessary and not the most effective way to
protect unclassified systems."
A proposal last year by the White House Homeland Security Council to put
the Department of Homeland Security in charge of the initiative was
resisted by national security agencies on the grounds that the
department, established in 2003, lacked the necessary expertise and
authority. The tug-of-war lasted weeks and was resolved only recently,
several sources said.
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
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