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With war near, U.S. raises terror alert level

Dan Verton
March 2003

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WASHINGTON -- On what now appears to be the eve of almost certain war in Iraq, the U.S. government last night raised the terrorism alert level to "orange" and is ordering stepped-up security for all the nation's critical infrastructure, including the Internet.

In response to the increased threat stemming from specific and reliable intelligence, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, has invoked "Operation Liberty Shield," a national plan designed to increase border security, strengthen transportation-sector protections, enhance security at critical-infrastructure facilities, increase public health preparedness and make sure all federal agencies can be deployed quickly.

"The intelligence community believes that terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein," Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said in a statement last night, shortly after President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq or face certain attack by the U.S.

In addition to specific threats involving the possible use of chemical, biological or radiological weapons, Ridge also warned that Iraqi state agents and surrogate groups, other extremist organizations and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals could conduct terrorist attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad.

"In recent months, there have been reports of suspicious activity in and around military facilities, ports, waterways, general infrastructure (bridges, dams, power generating facilities) and targets that are considered symbolic to U.S. power and influence," said Ridge.

Meanwhile, security analysts at Reston, Va.-based iDefense Inc. are warning of increased hacking and malicious code activity in response to any military action against Iraq. According to iDefense, there have already been a number of incidents of malicious code in the wild that are related to the pending crisis in Iraq.

"It seems probable to conclude that at least some hackers may try to launch denial-of-service (DOS) attacks against U.S., Israeli, U.K. and Spanish targets," according to a new iDefense intelligence report obtained by Computerworld. "These could include attempts to try to disrupt U.S. military operations by hackers launching DOS attacks against .mil sites or critical infrastructure sites in the private sector."

IDefense also noted that "Saddam Hussein may have hacker mercenaries or sympathizers who are prepared to launch specific attacks during a conflict, though evidence of that has also not surfaced."

In addition, VX Heavens, one of the best-established virus-authoring Web sites on the Internet, on March 17 posted a protest against the likelihood of war with Iraq. According to iDefense, the text of the protest reads, "Stop the Fourth Reich! Stop the Oil War!"

"This is a strong position taken by the group of malicious code authors at VX Heavens," said the iDefense intelligence report. "It is likely that this group and others in the malicious code scene will soon create malicious code to further protest possible war on Iraq. Organizations should be especially vigilant for unusual e-mails from unknown entities."

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