Pentagon denies hackers penetrated secret nets

Despite recent claims by an international hacking group that it accessed and obtained classified information from a Defense Department network, DOD officials last week strongly denied that the group penetrated classified networks or obtained classified information.

A group calling itself Masters of Downloading, or MOD, last week claimed that it penetrated in October 1997 the Defense Information Systems Network operated by the Defense Information Systems Agency and that it stole classified software and data that would allow the group to "take down" all of DISN from a remote location. The group also claimed to have copied software that controls military satellites.

The claim received widespread media attention after DOD officials acknowledged they were investigating the attack. But a DISA spokeswoman last week said MOD accessed no classified information and could not affect DISN operations as it had claimed.

The DOD spokeswoman also noted that the hackers did not obtain software that controls military satellites. The software affected was an unclassified network management application, and the incident did not pose a national security risk, she said.

Members of MOD could not be reached for comment.

DISN is split into two parts: the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET), which operates essentially as a military Internet with several external connections; and a secret network called the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET), which is designed to be completely isolated from external links.

The four secret DOD World Wide Web sites that MOD claimed to have successfully attacked all reside on NIPRNET, and therefore no classified information was obtained, a DISA spokeswoman said. The Web sites exist in the ".mil" domain, whereas SIPRNET sites and addresses all carry the ".smil.mil" domain name, said one source familiar with the difference in addressing systems between the military unclassified and secret networks. The sites that MOD claimed to have attacked, according to the hacker Web site AntiOnline, all had .mil addresses.

While NIPRNET has become a popular target for hackers, SIPRNET has never been compromised by intruders, according to Air Force Brig. Gen. John Meincke, vice director of DISA.

"There has never been a penetration of any of our sensitive networks— [Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System] or SIPRNET— by anybody," Meincke told an industry gathering one week before the latest attacks were made public. "But we're not ignoring what's happening at the NIPRNET level."

The MOD claims are "chest pounding" and amount to mostly "baloney," according to Drew Williams, co-founder of the Information Security SWAT team of Axent Technologies Inc. The SWAT team monitors the tools and exploits of the hacking underground.

"This report does not indicate any measurable, quantifiable evidence that any harm was done on a secure level. The Pentagon happens to be one of our customers, and we know how they work. They are a secure environment at the utmost level," Williams said.

The term "classified" means different things to different people, Williams added, including denoting proprietary data or sensitive data that may or may not truly be classified.

"The term 'classified' has all kinds of romance around it," Williams said. "It's hardly a step into the workings of a nuclear missile."

This incident comes on the heels of another series of Pentagon computer attacks in February— an incident now known as "Solar Sunrise"— that a top military official then described as "the most organized and systematic attack the Pentagon has seen to date."

Despite the fact that the hackers penetrated only unclassified networks, the Pentagon still takes such attacks seriously. Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said the hacker attacks pose a "very significant national security risk," and widespread attacks in February of this year gave the Pentagon a "wake-up call."

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