Wednesday, July 5, 2006

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What's the bigger threat to national security?

When the New York Times published stories about the Bush administration's efforts to track terrorist financing via the SWIFT consortium, a lot of the conservative blogosphere got on the NYT's case about publishing national secrets on the front page of the paper of record. And, for the record, I suspect that the publication probably disrupted the program because of the backlash it created in Europe, where SWIFT is headquartered.

And yet, I'd take the Bush administration's umbrage about the publication of classified information more seriously if the government demonstrated anything close to competence when to comes to protecting the computerized data currently in its possession.

The Energy Department and the Department of Veteran Affairs have already had problems with lost data.

Now Eric Weiss reports in the Washington Post that the FBI has had a little bit of a problem in this area:

A government consultant, using computer programs easily found on the Internet, managed to crack the FBI's classified computer system and gain the passwords of 38,000 employees, including that of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

The break-ins, which occurred four times in 2004, gave the consultant access to records in the Witness Protection Program and details on counterespionage activity, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. As a direct result, the bureau said it was forced to temporarily shut down its network and commit thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to ensure no sensitive information was lost or misused.

The government does not allege that the consultant, Joseph Thomas Colon, intended to harm national security. But prosecutors said Colon's "curiosity hacks" nonetheless exposed sensitive information.

Colon, 28, an employee of BAE Systems who was assigned to the FBI field office in Springfield, Ill., said in court filings that he used the passwords and other information to bypass bureaucratic obstacles and better help the FBI install its new computer system. And he said agents in the Springfield office approved his actions.

The incident is only the latest in a long string of foul-ups, delays and embarrassments that have plagued the FBI as it tries to update its computer systems to better share tips and information. Its computer technology is frequently identified as one of the key obstacles to the bureau's attempt to sharpen its focus on intelligence and terrorism....

What Colon did was hardly cutting edge, said Joe Stewart, a senior researcher with Chicago-based security company LURHQ Corp. "It was pretty run-of-the-mill stuff five years ago," Stewart said.

Asked if he was surprised that a secure FBI system could be entered so easily, Stewart said, "I'd like to say 'Sure,' but I'm not really. They are dealing with the same types of problems that corporations are dealing with."

To be fair to the Bush administration, a lot of this stuff might have happened regardless of who was running the White House.

That said, the administration seems to be obsessed with protecting data from journalists. I'd much prefer it if they were obsessed with protecting their data from hackers.

UPDATE: On the other hand, the FBI has done an excellent job protecting Coca Cola's secret formula!!

posted by Dan on 07.05.06 at 10:22 PM


There's also the not-so-small matter of selective declassification and leaks to serve partisan ends. This administration has been an avid practitioner of both.

posted by: Doug on 07.05.06 at 10:22 PM [permalink]

And another thing: Drying up funding for OBL and co (remember him? the administration doesn't seem to) has been an important USG activity since the Clinton Administration. Go back and look for Treasury documents on limiting terrorist financing, and you'll see that something like SWIFT monitoring had to have been going on.

Further, I've read (though can't find the cite just now) that intelligence from that source fell significantly in 2003-04, so America's real enemies have been pushed back further into the shadows.

What we're hearing now is just more Conservative Whining(tm), in which everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault.

posted by: Doug on 07.05.06 at 10:22 PM [permalink]

It's a little sad that the FBI is taking such extreme measures to root out those who show initiative, if the hacker was indeed motivated simply to bypass silly bearaucraticbureaucratic obstacles to getting his job done.

The Post article goes on to point out that the FBI has just spent $535 million on a computer system is must scrap. It will now spend an additional $425 million on a brand new system. Perhaps they should put this hacker in charge of the new system with a license to crack heads until it gets done.

posted by: Chad on 07.05.06 at 10:22 PM [permalink]

In my opinion the biggest threat to National security is the people of the nation itself. If in case the government does not care for the general people and the basic things will not be provided to the people then people can revolt against the government.

posted by: Jimmy Willson on 07.05.06 at 10:22 PM [permalink]

Wow, I'm a little disappointed to hear this kind of reasoning coming from you, Dan... you seem so above ad hominem.

That aside, would you say a burglar should be let off the hook because you left a window in your house unlocked?

posted by: Justin on 07.05.06 at 10:22 PM [permalink]

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