Is U.S. Prepared for a Computer Hack Attack?
May 7, 2001

The White House Web site is back online today after hackers slowed it down for hours Friday. Odds are that such an attack is going to happen again.

U.S. Department of Energy investigators recently demonstrated to Congress just how easy it is to hack into a supposedly secure government computer. It took them less than 15 minutes.

And that's not all. At the Environmental Protection Agency, an intruder blocked access to agency computers. And last year, congressional investigators secretly tapped into Internal Revenue Service computers that held confidential information about taxpayers.

"The government was asked in the last administration to become a model in computer security and it did—it became a model of how not to do computer security," said Richard Clarke, the national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism.

Too Many Cooks?

Congressional investigators say the government's approach to protecting its computers is confused. There is no focused plan for fixing the problem and no one leader who can mandate change.

For example, there are half a dozen commissions to help safeguard cyber security. But federal agencies also are developing their own security programs, making for a lack of coordination and a hodge-podge of solutions.

"Right now I think a lot of government agencies are struggling with too few people and too few resources to take on the mission they have," says Michael Vatis, former head of the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the Federal Bureau for Investigation.

All this at a time of increasingly sinister threats, including a threatened cyberwar between Chinese and American hackers and periodic hacking and virus alerts.

"With all this activity going on, I guess I'm wondering why we haven't seen an example of cyberterrorism yet," U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said in a recent exchange.

"I think we're just lucky we haven't seen it happen," said Sallie MacDonald of the General Services Administration.

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