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Experts prepare for 'an electronic Pearl Harbor'

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'The average American should be concerned'

November 7, 1997
Web posted at: 8:59 p.m. EST (0159 GMT)

From Correspondent Pierre Thomas

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While the possible sabotage of a San Francisco power grid two weeks ago was an inconvenience for the 126,000 people left without power, what bothers others is that it merely hints at what could happen in the future.

vxtreme CNN's Pierre Thomas reports.

Imagine, for example, phone service cut off because someone used computers to shut down the area's telecommunications system.

Or subway cars stopped in their tracks because a saboteur has monkeyed with a transit system's controls. Or the money of hundreds of thousands of people frozen in banks and ATMs because someone planted a virus in a bank's central computer.

It's not as far-fetched as it seems, at least not to the United States government. A presidential commission has already identified power systems, water supplies and gas and oil distribution systems as needing added protection. The recommendations are not being taken lightly.

"We're facing the possibility of an electronic Pearl Harbor," Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre told a congressional hearing. "There is going to be an electronic attack on this country some time in the future."

Task force includes 11 U.S. agencies

"This may be the most difficult and important national security and public safety concern our nation's leadership will face in the months and years to come," says Sen. John Kyl, an Arizona Republican.

The government has already begun preparing for scenarios that could be nightmares to those accustomed to an infrastructure that functions in a reasonably orderly way.

A task force of 11 federal agencies -- including the military, the FBI, the CIA, the Treasury Department, the Transportation Department and the Department of Energy -- is in the process of assessing the nation's vulnerabilities.

FBI agent David Keyes, who chairs the Infrastructure Protection Task Force, says his job is to figure out "what vulnerabilities the cyber dimension introduces into the terrorism arena. What kinds of ways can the United States be hurt through electronic attack, rather than bombs?"

'The average American should be concerned'

In recent months, the Pentagon conducted a secret training exercise dubbed "Eligible Receiver" in which technicians jousted with "villains" targeting databases and communications systems.

"The average American should be concerned," says Ray Kelly, Undersecretary for Enforcement at the Treasury Department, "because virtually every aspect of their daily lives is now involved in infrastructure and, increasingly, the cyber infrastructure -- information.

"The airline control system, passenger reservations, air traffic control; all of those are controlled by information networks," says Buck Revell of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. "These networks extend on a global basis. And they can be interceded and intercepted."

For those who say the federal government is crying wolf, authorities point to the World Trade Center bombing and Oklahoma City. And, with the incident in San Francisco, which the FBI is investigating, they have another to add to the list.

 
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