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  •   Phreaking Hacktivists

        Bill Arkin

    By William M. Arkin
    Special to
    Monday, Jan. 18, 1999

    A pack of 20-something hackers who call themselves the Legions of the Underground claim they spent the evening of Dec. 28 probing, mapping and preparing to attack Iraq's computer systems.

    "If we wanted we'd be able to dial up and make a huge amount of connections to their systems and possibly bring [Iraq] to its knees," spokesman Steve Stakton bragged to Wired News. "We are ready to commence and take part in electronic warfare if requested," Stakton read from the group's mission statement.

    I don't know which is more comical, the exploits and egotism of these self-appointed vigilantes and nitwits or the fact that the media seem incapable of not reporting each latest hacktivist claim as fact and news.

    The Bits Stop Here

    But they are not laughing in a little-known Pentagon agency called J-33, or the Special Technical Operations Division (STOD) of the J-3 (Operations) directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They have been trying to figure out how to hack Iraq for a long time and have found the challenge daunting.

    STOD was set up during the Cold War and is the highest-level military focal point for all matters relating to what is called offensive information warfare. STOD is a covert action broker for the Joint Staff. Unlike other offices in the Pentagon that merely push a lot of paper, it also is charged with providing direct military support to operational missions of the CIA and NSA, and of responding to requests for assistance from the National Security Council. Each U.S. regional command, such as the.S. Central Command responsible for Iraq, has its own STOD.

    J-33's operations branch controls the Special Technical Operations Center within the Pentagon. The center is the most secure facility within the U.S. military. Dozens of special access (or "black") programs are monitored at the center. These include the United States's own hacking activities; strategic psychological, concealment and deception operations; and "directed energy warfare." The latter includes special weapons and capabilities, such as high-powered microwave weapons, that could be used to disable enemy communications, computing, and the production and distribution of electricity.

    A Virus of Hoaxes

    We are now in the era of information warfare

    We are now in the era of information warfare and growth of interest in this new mode closely parallels the time period of the U.S.-Iraq confrontation. As a result, there has always been a fascination with Saddam's computers. STOD has been there: It played a hand in targeting and employment of special weapons in 1991 to go after Iraq's electrical grid and it has overseen covert and psychological operations against Iraq ever since.

    While there are real programs in this field, the media reporting has been miserable. It all started with a U.S. News and World Report article in 1992 that said the NSA had managed to plant a virus in a French printer used in the Iraqi air defense system. Every time an Iraqi technician accessed his computer, the story went, their systems went down.

    The story was widely repeated as fact until it turned out to have been a hoax. The printer virus story had run in the April Fool's issue of InfoWorld magazine after the Gulf War. What is more, computer experts dismiss the story because it would not be possible for a mere printer to transmit a virus to a computer.

    But the story won't die. Last year, the book The Next World War: Computers are the Weapons and the Front Line is Everywhere by former UPI head James Adams, repeats the yarn as fact.

    Playing With Themselves

    Iraq is a country without a single Internet connection, and where privately owned modems are outlawed. It isn't that one couldn't penetrate Iraq's telephone system, which is still one of the most sophisticated in the Third World. But what then?

    The Legionnaires, who were all playing with their Gameboys when bombs fell for the first time during Desert Storm, claim that they could rampage electronically through the Iraqi landscape. Were it true, STOD would snap them up. The U.S. has been trying to do so for years.

    The reality is that the Iraqi government practices some of the most effective communications security anywhere.

    The reality is that the Iraqi government practices some of the most effective communications security anywhere. When the Gulf War began in 1991, U.S. intelligence assessed the Iraqi electronic capabilities to be "the most sophisticated threat to face the U.S. outside of the Soviet Union," according to a declassified report of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

    Since 1991, according to intelligence sources, Saddam Hussein's computers and networks have been used to continue to keep the Iraqi population under surveillance and to perpetuate proscribed weapons programs. Much of this equipment comes from U.S. companies, according to export licenses. Nevertheless, the mere presence of American and western technology doesn't mean that successful hacking, even by professionals, is just around the corner.

    Which is why in Desert Fox, many of these communications and computer facilities were bombed. A particular focus were the computer centers of the Iraqi secret police organizations. No amount of fanciful info-warfare could have convinced anyone responsible for the operation that bits were better than bombs.

    William M. Arkin, author of "The U.S. Military Online," is a leading expert on national security and the Internet. He lectures and writes on nuclear weapons, military matters and information warfare. An Army intelligence analyst from 1974-1978, Arkin currently consults for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, MSNBC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Arkin can be reached for comment at

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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