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Pentagon confirms attack breached classified network

'Network administrator's worst fear'

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The Pentagon has opened the kimono on what it described as the “most significant breach of US military computers ever,” in which a flash drive in 2008 was used to infect large numbers of computers, including those used by the Central Command overseeing combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the device was plugged into a military laptop located on an undisclosed base in the Middle East, malicious code soon linked highly sensitive machines to networks controlled by an unnamed foreign intelligence agency, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III wrote in the first official account of the episode.

“That code spread undetected on both classified and unclassified systems, establishing what amounted to a digital beachhead, from which data could be transferred to servers under foreign control,” he wrote in an article to be published Wednesday, according to The Washington Post.

“It was a network administrator's worst fear: a rogue program operating silently, poised to deliver operational plans into the hands of an unknown adversary.”

Military officials responded with a counter attack known as Operation Buckshot Yankee, which Lynn characterized as a turning point in the Pentagon's computer defense strategy. Among the steps initially taken was the banning of USB devices by the Defense Department, a curb that has since been modified slightly.

The account, included in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, comes almost two years after The Los Angeles Times reported an unofficial account of the incident, that claimed it most likely originated in Russia. Wednesday's article signals attempts by the Pentagon to raise awareness to the growing vulnerability of the US military to computer-based attacks, which often allow adversaries with modest means to inflict disproportionate damage.

“A dozen determined computer programmers can, if they find a vulnerability to exploit, threaten the United States's global logistics network, steal its operational plans, blind its intelligence capabilities or hinder its ability to deliver weapons on target,” Lynn wrote.

Last month, a retired US general made many of the same points, comparing the network world to the highly vulnerable North German plain that has been invaded repeatedly over the past several centuries.

More coverage from The New York Times is here. Wired.com has an article here saying some Defense Department insiders doubt the attack was the work of a hostile government. ®

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