Cyberspace is getting more attention from U.S. officials as a possible venue for terrorism. CIA Director George Tenet has warned in the past that the country was unprotected from an attack on computer networks capable of disrupting everything from the nation's banking system to its military preparedness. Such an attack is exactly what the government fears al-Qaida or its sympathizers might be planning.
Nearly four years to the day after his initial warning, CIA Director George Tenet this week again told Congress that virtually nothing has been done since then to protect key parts of America's infrastructure from terrorism. "There are all kinds of infrastructure targets in the country, from your air system to your rail system to your water system," he said. "The vulnerability assessment and a systemic program of protection is what the country doesn't have."
This, as U.S. intelligence warns, several governments around the world already have or are trying to develop cyber warfare programs. Simply by tapping into unprotected websites, terrorists operating far beyond the reach of the United States could launch a surprise and anonymous attack.
It's happened in Mexico, where supporters of Zapatista rebels have sabotaged websites belonging to Mexican financial institutions. Two years ago, hackers prevented millions of people around the world from being able to reach popular internet sites such as Yahoo, E-Bay and Amazon.com.
But those disruptions are minor compared to the kind that Patrick Grey, who analyzes threats at the Center for Internet Security Systems, warns could hit this country. "Are we better prepared than when George Tenet made that statement several years ago? In some of the financial sectors, yes," Mr. Grey explained. "As far as the public utilities, no, right now, simply because of the ubiquitousness of connecting to the Internet."
Everything from water supplies, bridges, dams, transportation networks and many other vital services are vulnerable. "All of these things are usually connected to the internet through remote capabilities so people can open a lock or shut a lock or change a railway switch," Mr. Grey added.
The Washington Post quotes national security officials as saying instructions have been found on laptops seized from al-Qaida strongholds in Afghanistan describing how to remotely control utilities and emergency systems in the United States.
"We hear a lot of rhetoric that al-Qaida probably does not have the technical skills to do these things," Mr. Grey continued, "but there are a lot of folks out there in the world that do not like this country, do not like our form of government, who are capable of doing it and I think, with the money, that these folks have they certainly can go out and find mercenaries who can do it for them."
The issue is an urgent priority for the FBI. On Thursday, newspapers in Poland reported authorities are on the lookout for a hacker in that country who managed to penetrate computers used by the U.S. space agency, NASA, reportedly causing damages estimated at about $1 million.