By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"The whole idea plays to our deepest fears," says Pelton, whose unauthorized trips into combat zones led to the first interview with the famed "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh. "Terrorists just don't have the same mindset. What you're really looking at is a big fat government trying to reshape the enemy in its own form."
O HEAR SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS TELL it, cyberterrorism is a national emergency that should stir the resolve of every American. "We live in a world where a terrorist can do as much damage with a keyboard and a modem as with a gun or a bomb," the North Carolina Democrat declared in January. Just a month earlier, Congress targeted cyberterrorists as part of the USA PATRIOT Act, giving police sweeping new surveillance powers and stiffening sentences for those convicted of computer crime.
It's unlikely that any of these tough new laws will make a whit of difference in the fight against terrorism. Where they've already come into play is in the prosecution of teenage hackers who've expressed half-baked political motives, or in efforts to curtail online fraud, extortion, corporate espionage and other economic crimes, which cost U.S. industry upward of $15 billion in 2001 alone.
Leading the government's counteroffensive is Richard Clarke, the nation's first cybersecurity czar. A former national-security adviser who has worked for every president since Reagan, Clarke is bald, jowly and authoritative, a towering presence among the nerdy code jockeys and slick consultants who make up much of the info-war camp. Since his appointment, he's crisscrossed the country spreading the gospel of digital vigilance, rallying crowds of information-technology worker bees with hawkish quotes from Churchill and dire warnings that our enemies are poised to "attack us not with missiles and bombs but with bits and bytes."
Lounging in a hotel lobby during a recent stop in Portland, Clarke is quick to acknowledge that neither he nor anyone in the 13 agencies and offices of the U.S. intelligence community has any evidence that terrorists are now using computers as weapons. "We haven't seen an attack by a terrorist group meant to hack its way into a Web site or otherwise do damage," he says. "We haven't seen the Palestinians turn off the electricity in Haifa. We haven't yet seen a terrorist group drop the electric power grid, crash a communications network or disrupt a banking system."
But just because they haven't yet doesn't mean they won't. Clarke doesn't discount any of the cyberterror possibilities, quickly ticking off a few that he finds the most plausible: an attack on the military networks that control troop deployment, or a hack of the computer routers that control the Internet itself. In another favorite plot, a mysterious outbreak of anthrax is followed by a computer attack on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, slowing down response teams and multiplying the body count.
Of course no one, not even the Patton-like Clarke, can say for certain whether such events will ever come to pass, or how to measure their probability against other postÂSeptember 11 threats, from truck bombs on the Bay Bridge to anthrax-filled crop dusters over Manhattan. The only real evidence that terrorists are even aware of the destructive capabilities of computers emerged this summer, with a report in the Washington Post that al Qaeda laptops seized in Afghanistan contained research about digital devices that allow remote computers to do things like throw railway switches and adjust the flow of oil and water.
Clarke admits the public evidence is limited but claims that classified intelligence indicates that terrorists are poised to strike. Clarke is meanwhile rallying a whole new wing of government to fight back. On that early summer evening in Portland, Clarke retreated to his hotel suite, switched on CNN and watched his boss announce plans to create a permanent White House Department of Homeland Security. Among the new department's responsibilities is the protection of cyberspace, adding some 150,000 federal agents and an annual budget of $37 billion to the potential war chest. His nose buried in a stack of reports on the new bureaucracy, Clarke couldn't conceal a grin.
"This is big," he said. "Very, very big."
HILE CYBERTERROR IS CERTAINLY scary, a close look at the cases cited as proof of the threat is much less sensational. Typical was a December 2001 news item that many pronounced to be the long-predicted first shot of the info war. According to an Indian newspaper report, Islamic militants had gone undercover at Microsoft and planted a so-called Trojan-horse virus in the new Windows XP operating system.
Fortunately, the story was bogus. "It was a bizarre allegation that had no basis in fact," says Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler. Still, the tale demonstrates a crucial point in the hype over cyberterrorism. Can anyone seriously count a computer virus that crashes a hard drive in the same category as a radiological bomb that craters a city?
The important difference, of course, is violence. Terrorism simply isn't such a big deal without explosions, dismemberment or death. And notwithstanding the killer cyborgs in The Terminator or the merciless HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers don't have much talent for killing people. Most authorities -- including the government's National Infrastructure Protection Center -- make this distinction, defining a cyberterrorist attack as a politically motivated, computer assault on civilians that causes physical harm.