Kim Hart's The Download

The National Defense University, where President George W. Bush spoke in 2007, has four graduate-level colleges.
The National Defense University, where President George W. Bush spoke in 2007, has four graduate-level colleges. (Mark Wilson - Getty Images)

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By Kim Hart
Monday, February 16, 2009

An Army lieutenant may be an expert at securing borders and warding off enemies in a war zone. But when it comes to making sure hackers cannot break into the military's communications network, officers may feel pretty defenseless.

To get a better grasp on technological threats, military officers, agency heads and government contracting executives have found one of the Defense Department's best-kept secrets: the National Defense University.

NDU is made up of four graduate-level colleges, including the National War College, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and the Joint Forces Staff College. But the largest college -- the Information Resources Management College -- has grown the fastest over the past few years because the skills it teaches are in such high demand.

Located on the District waterfront, at Fort Lesley J. McNair, the college trains mid-career workers, in the public and private sectors, how to leverage the newest consumer technologies as well as how to protect vital information. This expertise used to be reserved for an agency's chief information officer. But as tools like thumb drives, Facebook, Twitter and voice over Internet Protocol phone services creep into offices and bases, secure digital networks are becoming essential for all employees.

"Web 2.0 and information assurance are such big deals these days, but they are in conflict," said Robert Childs, senior director of the college. The courses are tailored for people responsible for safeguarding the networks at the National Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, for example. The Defense Department is the college's primary source of funding.

Many of the college's students, about 2,000, end up in the class of associate professor Robert Young, who says his specialty is scaring people by demonstrating all of the malicious ways hackers can wreak havoc on everything from e-mail accounts to top-secret databases. The college has set up a private network so students can launch virtual attacks on each other to test their skills.

"If you're a government employee, you're a target," said Young, who goes by "Rocky" and is retired from the Air Force.

In the lab, which is equipped with biometrics tools, digital forensic kits, servers and modems, Young shows students how to detect encrypted information, find unsecured access points to wireless networks and how World of Warcraft and Second Life can become gateways for criminals to learn personal information.

The typical NDU student is 40 to 45 years old. The students didn't grow up depending on the Internet for every aspect of daily life, and they're trying to adapt to the new ways of doing business on social networks and instant messengers. Still, they are the ones responsible for managing the 20-somethings entering the workforce who cannot live without BlackBerrys and iPods, which can also be security threats.

"They've never done some of these things before, but they'll be the ones making the $8 billion decisions when a crisis happens," Young said. "And we make assumptions that companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman know these things, but they don't."

The college has partnered with 30 companies, including Sprint Nextel, Cisco, BAE Systems and Raytheon, to be exposed to new technologies and equipment. Company employees can take advantage of the classes as well. Defense Department employees can attend for free. Many of the course credits can be transferred to other institutions, such as George Mason University and Johns Hopkins University.

The college is trying to become expert in cloud computing, which lets companies store information on remote servers maintained by companies such as Amazon and Google rather than company-owned servers, which may not be as secure. As more agencies and contractors experiment with cloud computing, Childs said, employees need to know the benefits as well as the risks.

Some professors travel around the world to set up similar classes. It is there they learn how advanced others are when it comes to using cutting-edge technologies.

"Our adversaries are much better at using technologies than we are," he said. "We have to be part of that global grid."

Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at hartk@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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