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. “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 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, Va.-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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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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