Defense anti-hacking office goes on the offensive

Three years ago, a series of coordinated attacks on Defense Department computer networks set off a search for security vulnerabilities in the Pentagon's information systems. The attacks, called "Moonlight Maze," mystified investigators, who feared they might be linked to the theft of sensitive Defense data.

Such attacks keep the members of Defense's Joint Task Force-Computer Network Operations (JTF-CNO) up at night. In fact, task force investigators still haven't solved the Moonlight Maze puzzle. Analysts think the attacks originated in Russia--but aren't certain.

"The truth is we don't know who is behind Moonlight Maze," said Navy Capt. Robert West, special assistant to the commander of JTF-CNO. The task force is dedicated to both protecting Defense's computer networks and developing attack strategies to conduct information warfare against U.S. adversaries. The task force has operated with relative anonymity for the past three years. It was created in 1998 in the wake of "Solar Sunrise," a series of attacks on Pentagon computers that originally appeared to have been perpetrated by a number of small governments sympathetic to the plight of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Solar Sunrise turned out to be the work of a couple of high school kids in California, West said. In October 1999, JTF-CNO was transferred to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Space Command. In April of this year, the task force was handed the responsibility for conducting attacks in coordination with U.S. land, air and sea operations meant to deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy enemy computer capabilities. When the task force was new, it looked only for large, organized efforts against individual Defense networks. But it found that while almost all of the malicious attacks on military networks were criminal in nature, they weren't the work of organized agents working for foreign governments, and therefore didn't constitute a threat to national security. Distinguishing between criminal activity and national security threats at the beginning of an attack is impossible, West said. As a result, representatives from each of the military's criminal investigative commands work alongside task force personnel. "We have a full-time cybercop operation here," he said. "Cops investigate, get warrants and can do things no one else can." The job is difficult because of the peculiarities of the Internet. "It's so hard to get attribution online," West said. JTF-CNO can follow the network footsteps of a hacker back to Web sites all over the world. It can even pinpoint the computer from which attacks have originated. However, finding a motive is difficult.

"This is an area that's got cops written all over it-you never know what's in the brain of an individual behind malicious activity," West said.

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