Former Clinton and Bush officials war-game cyberattack (originating from the Sudan!)
Photo: A mock nat'l security team led by Michael Chertoff wrestles with questions a real-life Cabinet might face. Photo: AP
Former officials war-game cyberattack
From Politico.com by JEN DIMASCIO
Tuesday, 16 February 2010, 5:41 PM EST:
Could a terrorist organization wage a crippling cyberattack that would take down telecommunications networks, disable the Internet and disrupt the nation’s power grid?
Quite possibly, concluded the group of former Clinton and Bush administration officials who engaged Tuesday in a war game designed to simulate how the government would respond to such an attack.
Sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and held at a Washington hotel, “Cyber Shockwave” was the kind of classified “table top exercise” often used by national security agencies. Its scenario: A cyberattack originating from the Sudan spreads first through an NCAA basketball tournament cell-phone application. The attack spreads virally through the nation’s cell phones, takes out land lines and zaps the Internet.
The mock national security team, led by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, wrestled with the kind of questions a real-life Cabinet might face in such a catastrophe. As the team debated the legal authorities available to the president and what to tell the public, its ability to reach the populace was rapidly diminishing.
More and more telephones and computer networks — including the stock exchange and air traffic controls shut down — and as panelists wondered whether this was indeed an act of war, improvised explosive device attacks took out power grids in the eastern United States.
But the other complicating factor in the computer-based attack was the government’s inability to pinpoint the culprit. Even though the mock defense secretary pledged that U.S. Cyber Command could retaliate, the question remained — against whom? And how, when the government’s response plans are largely defined in the context of Cold War nuclear politics and don’t quite seem to fit this threat.
John Negroponte, the former director of national intelligence who had the role of secretary of state, said the scenario was certainly realistic and that with the information provided during the game, the culprit was not likely to be a nation-state. “I would put my money on a terrorist group,” Negroponte said.
In the role of counselor to the president, Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary in the Clinton administration, urged the panel to get the president to call the incident an act of war, bring congressional leaders to the White House and to act broadly and aggressively to stop the spread of outages.
The way out for the president seemed to be to take control, federalize the National Guard with the help of Congress and to ask for forgiveness of any potential trampling of civil rights later on.
The exercise illuminated some of the problems in dealing with issues of cybersecurity, especially because it’s difficult to get the government to change in the absence of a crisis. Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, acting as attorney general, pointed out the legal problems with using broad presidential authority to force energy or communications companies to act on the public’s behalf or mobilizing the military to take charge in an epic disaster.
Gorelick said President Barack Obama should be asking Congress now for ways to alleviate the policy problems that tie the government’s hands during crises.
So, who might be planning such an attack, one that the panel agreed was plausible? Possibly criminal networks, and perhaps Al Qaeda.
“We don’t understand their capabilities,” said John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA and DNI-for-a-day. “We just don’t know the extent to which they could do something like this.”
But retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, the event’s defense secretary, hedged on the Al Qaeda question. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”