Taking A Look Behind the Scenes at the NIPC

Intelligence data began pouring in on a Thursday afternoon. The press

hadn't picked up on it yet, but there was a problem brewing on the

Internet. A computer worm had been uncovered that, if left unchecked,

could begin to bog down Web sites and e-commerce around the country.

It was July 12. There were no reports yet of widespread failures or

denial-of-service attacks stemming from what would eventually become

known as the Code Red worm, but Ronald Dick knew his agency couldn't

afford to wait. The National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC)

had been criticized harshly in the past -- including once in a report

by the General Accounting Office (GAO) shortly after Dick took over as

director in March -- for not providing the type of advance warning and

strategic analysis many in government expected from it.

A warning had been sent out in June outlining the vulnerability that

the Code Red worm would later take advantage of. But now a private-

sector analyst was telling Dick that there were signs that something

was already spreading like a disease on the Internet. Dick sent the

information to Robert Gerber, chief of analysis and warning at the

NIPC. Gerber, a senior national intelligence officer on loan to the

NIPC from the CIA, ordered an immediate intelligence "work-up."

Like medical specialists exchanging information on a patient's health,

Gerber's analysts quickly began exchanging information via secure

telephone and videoconferencing links with officials all over

Washington. By July 19, the teleconferences had reached a frenzied

pace. There were as many as 20 a day, and they involved the Defense

Department, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Commerce

Department, the CIA, the Secret Service and even private-sector groups,

said Dick.

"We [still] don't know who is responsible for Code Red," said Dick on

July 27, three days before holding a national press conference to urge

Internet users to inoculate their systems against the worm (see

story). "But my job is simply to stop it."

For Dick, a 23-year veteran of the FBI who spent five years marketing

mainframe computers for Burroughs Corp. (which later became Unisys

Corp.) before joining the FBI, stopping a worm outbreak would prove

more challenging than he ever imagined. More than a half-dozen warnings

had gone out a month in advance, including one from the NIPC. Yet more

than 250,000 computers were infected in nine hours on July 19 alone.

And it wasn't over yet.

The second warning

On Friday, July 27, it became clear to the NIPC and some private-sector

experts that the Code Red worm wasn't dead. Analysis showed a second

variant of the worm was set to launch another round of infections

beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern time July 31.

Dick sat in his office in FBI headquarters overlooking Pennsylvania

Avenue. With him was Leslie Wiser, an investigator at the NIPC and the

FBI agent responsible for nabbing Aldrich Ames, the most damaging mole

in CIA history. They brainstormed ideas on how to get the word out to

the hundreds of thousands of systems administrators who still hadn't

patched their systems.

The conclusion was that the information-sharing partnership that had

developed between the NIPC and various private-sector groups had

worked. Early warnings helped the White House and other federal

agencies sidestep the initial outbreak of the worm.

But there were still companies out there that thought their systems

weren't important enough to be affected. More systems would almost

certainly be victimized. And if the worm proved as damaging as some

private-sector experts said it would be, Internet traffic could slow to

a crawl.

Dick was at a loss. "Everybody issued warnings, and yet we didn't reach

a significant number of people who utilize the software," he said. "How

do we do it?"

They decided to hold a press conference. Dick acknowledged that he

can't call a press conference every time a worm pops up. But in this

case, he said, "there is reason for concern" that the performance of

the Internet could be affected. So he held a press conference July 30,

flanked by Gerber and six representatives from private industry. The

decision attracted an unprecedented level of praise from industry

groups, as well as criticism from security pundits who later called it

FBI "hype."

The NIPC's critics have inflicted more wounds than Dick has the

resources to attend to. However, Dick is assembling a top-notch

interagency emergency team that includes Gerber; Wiser; Navy Admiral

James Plehal, who took over as the center's deputy director in

February; a new watch chief recently hired away from the NSA; and a

Secret Service agent whose appointment to the NIPC is pending.

"When I got here, we were basically a start-up," said Dick. "There

wasn't a staff here, there weren't facilities here and no dedicated

source of funding.

"We basically had to build those capabilities from the ground up," said

Dick. "It takes time."

Established in February 1998, the NIPC's mission is "to detect, deter,

assess and warn" the government and the private sector of significant

threats to Internet security. The NIPC is a joint center made up of

representatives from various agencies.

Two areas in which the NIPC has been criticized by the GAO -- and

rightfully so, according to Dick -- are strategic analysis and data

mining. The GAO report "was fair" and an accurate reflection of what

was happening at the NIPC when the report was published in May, Dick

said.

And the GAO offered more praise than criticism for the NIPC in its

report -- something the media ignored, according to Dick and Wiser.

"It's disheartening at the end of the day for people who are working 14

to 15 hours a day and trying to put out a good product to read some of

the headlines that come out," said Dick. "If [the GAO and Congress]

came to NIPC today they would not find the same issues bogging the

agency down."

Things are getting better, especially in strategic analysis and data

mining, thanks to Gerber and a new data warehouse and data mining pilot

project being put together by McLean, Virginia-based Mitre Corp. and

several national research laboratories.

But Dick, who is using the Centers for Disease Control as a model for

the new NIPC, needs specialists for his surgical team. He acknowledges

that part of the NIPC's problem has been the lack of expertise in the

IT aspects of critical infrastructure protection. "I need people who

know gas and water, people who know electric power and the

transportation system," he said.

"It's not going to be a quick fix," said Gerber. "Frankly, one of my

goals is to build the kind of place that if you were an intelligence

officer you couldn't imagine not working here," he said. "I'm of the

mind that two years from now, we'll need to look back and ask, 'Did we

stretch far enough?'"

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