Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Mock disasters: Trains, planes and bloggers

The US government staged a trial run of simulated computer attacks, physical attacks and psychological operations to test its readiness in the event of disasters. In many aspects, the response was inadequate

By Ted Bridis  /  AP , WASHINGTON

It is the government's idea of a really bad day: Washington's Metro subway trains shut down. Seaport computers in New York go dark. Bloggers reveal locations of railcars with hazardous materials. Airport control towers are disrupted in Philadelphia and Chicago. Overseas, a mysterious liquid is found in London's subway.

And that was just for starters.

The fictitious international calamities were among dozens of detailed, mock disasters confronting officials in rapid succession in the US government's biggest-ever "Cyber Storm" war game, according to hundreds of pages of heavily censored files obtained by reporters. The Homeland Security Department ran the exercise to test the US' hacker defenses, with help from the State, Defense and Justice departments, the CIA, the National Security Agency and others.

The laundry list of fictional catastrophes, which include hundreds of people on "No Fly" lists arriving suddenly at US airport ticket counters, is significant because it suggests what kind of real-world trouble keeps people in the White House awake at night.

Imagined villains include hackers, bloggers, even reporters. After mock electronic attacks overwhelmed computers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an unspecified "major news network" airing reports about the attackers refused to reveal its sources to the government. Other simulated reporters were duped into spreading "believable but misleading" information that worsened fallout by confusing the public and financial markets, according to the government's files.

The US$3 million, invitation-only war game simulated what the US described as plausible attacks over five days in February 2006 against the technology industry, transportation lines and energy utilities by anti-globalization hackers. The government is organizing another multimillion-dollar wargame, Cyber Storm 2, to take place early next month.

"They point out where your expectations of your capabilities may be overstated," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "They may reveal to you things you haven't thought about. It's a good way of testing that you're going to do the job the way you think you were."

Reporters obtained the Cyber Storm internal records nearly two years after it requested them under the Freedom of Information Act. The government censored most of the 328 pages it turned over, marked "For Official Use Only," citing rules preventing the disclosure of sensitive information.

"Definitely a challenging scenario," said Scott Algeier, who runs a cyber-defense group for leading technology companies, the Information Technology Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

For the participants -- who included government officials from the US, England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and executives from leading technology and transportation companies -- the mock disasters came fast and furious: Hacker break-ins at an airline; stolen commercial software blueprints; problems with satellite navigation systems; trouble with police radios in Montana; school closures in Washington, Miami, Florida and New York City; computer failures at border checkpoints.

The incidents were divided among categories: computer attacks, physical attacks or psychological operations.

"We want to stress these players," said Jeffrey Wright, the former Cyber Storm director for the Homeland Security Department. "None of the players took 100 percent of the correct, right actions. If they had, we wouldn't have done our job as planners."

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