- AMERICAN officials believe
Russia may have stolen some of the nation's most sensitive military secrets,
including weapons guidance systems and naval intelligence codes, in a concerted
espionage offensive that investigators have called operation Moonlight
- The intelligence heist, that could cause damage to America
in excess of that caused by Chinese espionage in nuclear laboratories,
involved computer hacking over the past six months.
- This was so sophisticated and well co-ordinated that
security experts trying to build ramparts against further incursions believe
America may be losing the world's first "cyber war".
- Investigators suspect Russia is behind the series of
"hits" against American computer systems since January. In one
case, a technician trying to track a computer intruder watched in amazement
as a secret document from a naval facility was "hijacked" to
Moscow from under his nose.
- American experts have long warned of a "digital
Pearl Harbor" in which an enemy exploits America's reliance on computer
technology to steal secrets or spread chaos as effectively as any attack
using missiles and bombs.
- In a secret briefing on Moonlight Maze, John Hamre, the
deputy defence secretary, told a congressional committee: "We are
in the middle of a cyber war."
- Besides military computer systems, private research and
development institutes have been plundered in the same operation. Such
institutes are reluctant to discuss losses, which experts claim may amount
to hundreds of millions of dollars.
- "We're no longer dealing with a world of disgruntled
teenagers," said a White House official, referring to previous cases
of computer hacking in which pranksters have been found responsible for
incursions. "It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this
problem. The president is very concerned about it."
- The offensive began early this year, when a startling
new method of hacking into American computer systems was detected. A military
computer server near San Antonio, Texas, was "probed" for several
days by hackers who had entered the system through an overseas site on
- Dozens of infiltrations ensued at other military facilities
and even at the Pentagon in Washington. When research laboratories also
reported incursions using the internet technique, officials realised that
a "cyber invasion" was under way.
- "There were deliberate and highly co-ordinated attacks
occurring in our defence department systems that appeared to be coming
from one country," said Curt Weldon, chairman of a congressional committee
for military research and development. "Such a thing has never happened
before. It's very real and very alarming."
- Even top secret military installations whose expertise
is intelligence security have been breached. At the Space and Naval Warfare
Systems Command (Spawar), a unit in San Diego, California, that specialises
in safeguarding naval intelligence codes, Ron Broersma, an engineer, was
alerted to the problem when a computer print job took an unusually long
- To his amazement, monitoring tools showed that the file
had been removed from the printing queue and transmitted to an internet
server in Moscow before being sent back to San Diego. "It turned out
to be a real tough problem for us," he told a private computer seminar
- It is not clear precisely what information was contained
in the stolen document. Beyond its role in naval intelligence, Spawar is
also responsible for providing electronic security systems for the Marine
Corps and federal agencies. It is suspected that several other intrusions
had gone undetected.
- Oleg Kalugin, a former head of Soviet counterintelligence
now resident in Maryland, said such facilities were prime targets for Russian
intelligence. He said the Federal Agency for Government Communications
and Information, a former KGB unit that specialises in electronic eavesdropping,
was certain to be exploiting the internet for spying on America. "That's
what they're good at," he said.
- America's high-precision technologies, including weapons
guidance systems, are of particular interest to a country such as Russia
where economic woes have prompted crippling cutbacks in funding for military
research. "Russia is quite good at producing technology but can't
afford to finance the research," said Kalugin. "It's easier to
- The computer assaults have given fresh impetus to measures
ordered by Clinton more than a year ago to protect the country's electronic
infrastructure. Alerted to the threat of Moonlight Maze, the president
has called for an extra $600m to help fund a variety of initiatives, including
an infrastructure protection centre in the FBI to gauge the vulnerability
of computer systems to attack.
- He has ordered the military to develop its own information
warfare capabilities to respond to such attacks. But Weldon, describing
dependence on computer systems as "the Achilles heel of developed
nations", said this is not enough. He is advocating the creation of
a unit in the Pentagon under a senior commander to oversee the defence
of computer systems.
- According to other experts, America has been so preoccupied
with beating the Y2K (year 2000) or millennium bug - a programming problem
that could paralyse computers on the first stroke of the new year - that
its military, scientific and commercial communities have neglected the
overall security of their computer systems.
- At the same time, the huge number of systems being overhauled
to make them Y2K-compliant has heightened the risk of infiltration.
- Alarmed by the theft of military documents whisked to
Russia, American officials argue that the country should brace itself for
other, equally disturbing forms of information warfare that, in theory,
could bring the country to its knees.
- China, Libya and Iraq are developing information warfare
capabilities and, according to one White House official, "we see well-funded
terrorist groups that also have such capabilities".
- A series of war games conducted by experts last year
revealed that the world's greatest superpower could be at the mercy of
a handful of determined computer hackers paralysing airports, markets and
military systems with a few taps on a computer laptop.
- Suspicions that Russia is responsible are based partly
on the involvement of Moscow-based internet servers in some attacks. But
experts caution that evidence of a Russian hand in the operation may not
signal a Kremlin connection.
- "It could turn out to be Russian organised crime,"
said one expert. "And they could be acting as a front for the intelligence
- Ironically, the Russians are pressing for an international
treaty to freeze information warfare. "We cannot permit the emergence
of a fundamentally new area of international confrontation," Sergei
Ivanov, the former Russian foreign minister, wrote in a letter to Kofi
Annan, the United Nations secretary-general in October.
- Subsequently, Russia's relations with America have reached
their lowest ebb since the cold war because of Nato's intervention in Yugoslavia.
Relations with China have also suffered. An offensive in cyberspace may
be their one way of retaliating without getting into a shooting war.