Clinton outlines anti-cyberterrorism plan

Arguing that the threat of cyberterrorism is no longer merely the stuff of suspense novels, Clinton says it is past time for the government to get serious about preparing for attacks.

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The federal government must take the lead in fighting cyberterrorism, President Clinton said today in a speech delivered at the National Academy of Sciences.

Arguing that the threat of cyberterrorism is no longer merely the stuff of suspense novels and movies, Clinton said it is past time for the government to get serious about preparing for information systems attacks that could prove as serious as the terrorist attacks on the federal building in Oklahoma City and on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"Open borders and revolutions in technology have spread the message and the gifts of freedom, but have also given new opportunities to freedom's enemies," Clinton said. "We must be ready--ready if our adversaries try to use computers to disable power grids, banking, communications and transportation networks, police, fire, and health services--or military assets."

To that end, Clinton detailed his plans for a new program, dubbed "Cyber Corps," that would augment existing government efforts to counter cyberterrorism while creating new ones aimed at broadening the protection of critical systems. He said he will ask Congress to earmark $1.46 billion in the next federal budget to fund his proposal--a 40 percent increase from previous spending on such efforts.

"Everyone in America must understand this: the government has got to fund this," Clinton said. "There is no market for the kinds of things we need to develop; and if we are successful, there never will be a market for them."

Companies such as Network Associates, based in Santa Clara, California, and Rockville, Maryland-based Axent Technologies, which specialize in computer security software, are just two of the companies that could benefit from new government business if legislators approve Clinton's plan.

"This could only be a win for us," said Marvin Dickerson, senior product marketing manager at Network Associates, a company that has been working on federal government computer security projects for the last 15 years. "The folks we already do business with stand to get a lot more money to spend."

Clinton outlined four specific initiatives for the program:

 An intensive research effort to detect intruders trying to break into critical computer systems.

 Detection networks--first for the Defense Department and later for other key agencies--that will alert appropriate teams when a critical computer system has been invaded. In addition, the private sector will be urged to create similar structures.

 The creation of information centers in the private sector so that American industries can work together and with the government to address cyberthreats.

 Funding to bolster the government's ranks of highly skilled computer experts capable of preventing and responding to computer crises.

Clinton also seeks money to help the National Domestic Preparedness Office develop rapid-response programs for 120 U.S. cities and metropolitan areas, and said he wants to hire scores of information technology experts to design new ways to protect the computer systems of government agencies from vandals and hackers.

"The new initiatives will take us to the next step" in fighting the new threats, Clinton said.

In order to implement the Cyber Corps program, the president said the government would encourage federal agencies to train and retrain computer specialists, as well as to recruit gifted young people out of college.

Clinton's speech comes just one day after the Web site of the United States Information Agency was breached by an intruder. The hack was the second in six months for the agency, which administers the Voice of America radio network and other foreign news services.

The federal government first took on cyberterrorism in 1996, when Clinton formed the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection to study the threat. In October 1997, the group released a report summarizing its findings.

"A personal computer and a simple telephone connection to an Internet service provider anywhere in the world are enough to cause a great deal of harm," the report warned. "The right command sent over a network to a power generating station's control computer could be just as effective as a backpack full of explosives, and the perpetrator would be harder to identify and apprehend."

Clinton pointed out that, since the release of that report, major steps have been taken by the government to ward off cyberattacks. For example, he said, special offices have been created within the FBI and the Commerce Department to protect critical systems. In addition, partnerships have been built with the private sector to "find and reduce vulnerabilities; to improve warning systems; and to rapidly recover if attacks occur."

Still, he said much more must be done--though he cautioned against panic.

"I have tried as hard as I can to create the right frame of mind in America for dealing with this," Clinton said. "For too long the problem has been that not enough has been done to recognize the threat and deal with it. And we in government, frankly, weren't as well-organized as we should have been for too long.

"I do not want the pendulum to swing the other way now, and for people to believe that every incident they read about in a novel or every incident they see in a thrilling movie is about to happen to them within the next 24 hours," he added.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.