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
"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
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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