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23 December 2010, 11:38

"W.T.F.": CIA and NSA respond to WikiLeaks

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WikiLeaks Logo The US Department of Defense National Security Agency (NSA), which is responsible for monitoring electronic communication, has responded to the WikiLeaks disclosures. Debora Plunkett, the Director of the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate said "We have to assume that all the components of our system are not safe" at a Cyber Security ForumPDF sponsored by The Atlantic magazine in Washington. Plunkett said the NSA now works on the assumption that its own systems have already been compromised.

With this in mind, the intelligence agency is arming itself for the coming year, a year forecasters and analysts agree will be the year of cyber war. The attitude is now aggressive as well as defensive on all fronts and attacks are being both prepared and prevented. After the Stuxnet attacks on Iranian industrial systems, the attacks on the Chinese search engine Baidu by attackers identifying themselves as the "Iranian cyber army" and the alleged attacks by government-run Chinese companies on Google and other US companies, these forecasts are hardly surprising. On the other hand, experts who caution against exaggerations have a more difficult task. Bruce Schneier, for example, who warned against the casual use of military terms when speaking at a conference organised by the Institute for European Affairs.

At the Atlantic magazine organised event, Plunkett explained that the NSA no longer exclusively focuses on preventing attacks. She said "The most sophisticated adversaries are going to go unnoticed on our networks,". Plunkett mentioned better sensors to monitor IT systems for irregularities in multiple places and drastic access rights limitation as potential defensive measures. She said that SIPRNet, which is used by the US State and Defense Departments and has about 2.5 million registered users, isn't really a secure network.

SIPRNet is the probable source of the US cables that have recently been in the headlines via WikiLeaks. When asked by Cyber Security Forum participants, Plunkett refused to comment on whether the NSA has been affected by the WikiLeaks disclosures. Whether other government organisations are also affected is another open question. The Washington Post reports that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which deals with foreign espionage, has set up a dedicated WikiLeaks Task Force for exposing potential agents. However at the CIA's headquarters the task force is reportedly mainly known by an "all-too-apt" abbreviation: W.T.F.

(Detlef Borchers)

(Detlef Borchers / crve)

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