West Point cadets battle NSA hackers in Cyber Defense Exercise

West Point cadets battle NSA hackers in Cyber Defense Exercise
West Point cadets battle NSA hackers in Cyber Defense Exercise 

By Ben Rubin 
The Journal News 
April 23, 2008

WEST POINT - A crew of about 30 cadets in fatigues huddled around banks 
of computer screens in a command center at Thayer Hall. Camouflage 
netting lined one wall of the room.

For four days this week, starting on Monday, the cadets would need to 
protect a computer network of their own creation from the National 
Security Agency's Red Team, professional hackers working at the Fort 
Meade Army post in Maryland.

Cadets would work day and night to keep their network running, as part 
of the seventh annual Cyber Defense Exercise, which pitted them against 
techies from the four other service academies. The academy most 
effective in protecting their network against the Red Team would win the 

"It's kind of an awesome experience," said senior Andy Wolfe, 24, who 
served as a cadet public affairs liaison. "The fact that we're here, 
we've established all the knowledge we have and we're standing up 
against one of the most professional and experienced teams in the 

The cadets won the exercise, known as CDX, last year and hoped that all 
their efforts would result in a repeat victory. As added motivation, the 
exercise award was put at the front of the command center so everyone 
knew what they were fighting for.

"We did repeat in '01 and '02, so we're looking to repeat again," said 
Lt. Col. Joe Adams, director of the Information Assurance course.

The scene at Thayer yesterday was a techie's dream. The room was 
well-stocked with Crunch 'n Munch, Mini Oreos and Smartfood Popcorn. 
Laptops and computer screens were lined up on long tables, with clusters 
of cadets working to protect different aspects of the network. A row of 
green bars on a projector screen at the front of the room indicated that 
the network was fully operational.

Seniors John Trimble, 21, and Bruce Barnes, 22, were busy poring over 
data, looking for suspicious files and trying to maintain the network's 
active directory.

"Right now, we have someone trying to log on and bypass our security 
system," Trimble said. "Right now, they've got their tentacles out and 
feeling where our weaknesses are."

Soon after, the NSA operatives initiated a sudden multipronged strike 
against the network, and the cadets whipped into a flurry of activity. 
NSA hackers went after a weak link in the network they exploited on 
Monday, while they tried to sneak into the cadets' network at a few 
other locations.

Within minutes, the cadets repelled the attack and breathed a collective 
sigh of relief, readying for the next fusillade. The first few hours of 
the day proved tougher than Monday's exercise, with the NSA hackers 
making much more aggressive moves against the cadets.

"It started off pretty hot and heavy. They had a pretty good defense 
going," said Maj. Anthony Vitello, a Red Team hacker working as a 
mediator at the command center. "They're doing a real good job. They're 
on top of their game."

The exercise goes on from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. After the NSA 
attacks stop in the afternoon, team members slave through the night - 
some even sleeping on cots at the command center - working to put the 
network back in shape to take another beating the next day.

"I was here for 13 to 14 hours yesterday, and I was one of the ones that 
cut out early," Trimble said.

Because most of the cadets are glued to their computers for much of the 
day, one or two cadets are sent out for a food run at lunch, or some 
just wait until dinnertime for foods that don't end in the letters 

"We're doing pretty well. We haven't lost service yet. We only got one 
breach," Wolfe said.

"This kind of situation is exactly what we're facing overseas," he 
added. "So it's very good practice."

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