LAS VEGAS--When airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, the nature of the attack took America's defenders by surprise. They were expecting hackers.
"We were very shocked in the federal government that the attack didn't come from cyberspace," said Marcus Sachs, cyber program director in the Department of Homeland Security.
Speaking at the Black Hat Briefings here Thursday, Sachs ran through the history of the U.S. government's interest in information operations and "cyber terrorism," the Tom Clancy-esque theory that rogue nation states and terrorist groups would attack the U.S. by hacking into the computers controlling critical infrastructures, like the electric grid or air traffic control systems.
From the Pentagon's 1997 "Eligible Receiver" exercise, which demonstrated that military computers were vulnerable to disruption, through the 1998 "Solar Sunrise" intrusions traced to two California teens and their Israeli mentor, to the mysterious "Moonlight Maze" hack attacks against unclassified defense systems, defense thinkers in two administrations looked with dread to cyberspace in the idleness that followed the end of the Cold War. In 1998, President Clinton responded to the cyber terror fears by signing Presidential Decision Directive 63, launching a broad public-private partnership aimed at locking down electronic security holes.
At times, the technology hype that inflated the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley seemed to have a dark mirror image in the dire predictions of an impending "electronic Pearl Harbor" coming from Washington. In 1999, influential Republican congressman Curt Weldon of the House Armed Services Committee said he placed the threat of cyber attack as more serious than the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction or missile proliferation. In March, 2001, President Bush's national security advisor Condoleezza Rice spoke at a cyber security policy forum to declare that vulnerable U.S. computers were America's "soft underbelly."
"Based on what we knew at the time, the most likely scenario was an attack from cyberspace, not airliners slamming into buildings," said Sachs, in an interview after his keynote.
Sachs was formerly the Director for Communication Infrastructure Protection in the White House Office of Cyberspace Security, and a staff member of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board.
While he stops short of saying that Washington's cyber terror obsession was a blunder, Sachs acknowledges that, in hindsight, the effort was misdirected. "We had spent a lot of time preparing for a cyber attack, not a physical attack," says Sachs. "Our priorities had to change a little bit."
That's not to say that Sachs doesn't believe that cyber security is important to America's economic security. Part of the DHS's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, the group he heads now is responsible for building an implementation plan for the White House's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. In his keynote, he spoke of the need to promulgate a "culture of security" from the end user up through the top layers of corporate and governmental hierarchies, to better secure government computers to make them an example to others, and the importance of international cooperation to secure the Internet.
But he also emphasized the need to provide physical protection to critical infrastructures. The September 11 attacks caused serious damage to a Verizon central office adjacent to the World Trade Center, triggering service outages. "What we learned in New York City is the physical infrastructure and the cyber infrastructure are closely tied together."
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