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U.S. to prepare for cyberterrorism attacks, but is it necessary?

July 16, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Brian Barger

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The specter of terrorists sneaking into computers all over the United States and wreaking havoc has a lot of people worried these days, including President Clinton.

Image of Clinton

He signed an executive order Monday to gather a panel of experts who will study the problem of cyberterrorism, and then tell Americans how to safeguard against information warfare.

"It is our clear view that a cyberthreat can disrupt the provision of services and disrupt our society, disable our society even more so than can a well-placed bomb," said Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.

The president has ordered plans to protect infrastructure that to one degree or another relies on computers. That include telecommunications, electrical power systems, gas and oil reserves, banking and finance systems, transportation, water supplies, emergency services such as fire and police, and government.

Threat exaggerated

Some, however, are questioning just how real such a threat is. Martin Libicki of National Defense University is one of them. "If you shut off all the lights in Iowa for two hours, that's not going to bring the country to its knees. But that may in fact be the system that is most vulnerable."

"If you stop Visa Card purchases for an hour, that's going to inconvenience people, but it's not going to bring the country to its knees."

-- Martin Libicki

Libicki and others point out that computer failures and power outages are a simple fact of life, and the economy is too resilient to be easily crippled by system failures, deliberate or accidental.

Image of Libicki

"During the snowstorm in the Northeast, roughly a quarter of the country was out of work for half a week, and that did not bring the country to its knees. It is just one of those things, like earthquakes and hurricanes," Libicki said.

However, Gorelick said, "We will have a cyber-equivalent of Pearl Harbor at some time, and we do not want to wait for that wake-up call."

Neither do the hundreds of high-tech companies who stand to make a multibillion-dollar windfall battling information warfare.

Experts in the field admit no known terrorist group has the know-how currently to wage cyberattacks. They say the United States is probably the only nation with that capability.

And in the end, counterterrorism experts say they're still more concerned about the less sophisticated threats, like last year's bombing in Oklahoma City.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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