Congress considers security policy changes
- By Dan Verton
- Jul 18, 1999
In the wake of the theft of nuclear weapons secrets at the Energy Department, government personnel who have criticized their agencies' information technology safeguards have become targets of intimidation, prompting some members of Congress to consider issuing top-down security policy changes.
Last month officials at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency apparently attempted to access the computer belonging to a senior technology trade adviser while he appeared before a congressional committee to talk about tactics that colleagues have used to keep him from talking about weaknesses in the Clinton administration's policy for controlling powerful computer technology.
Peter Leitner, a senior strategic trade adviser at DTRA and an outspoken critic of existing technology export policies, outlined for the House Government Reform Committee what he and four other witnesses described as intimidation against employees who reported security threats involving the export of powerful computer technology, as well as existing gaps that could make it easier for spies to penetrate sensitive information networks.
According to Leitner, while he was testifying on Capitol Hill, several workers at DTRA were pressuring system and network administrators to grant them access to his computer for the purposes of downloading the entire contents of the hard drive, which contained thousands of classified documents dating back eight years. Although DTRA officials did not gain access to the system, Leitner said the only thing that blocked the officials from accessing his system was the integrity of DTRA's system administrators.
"If the system administrators were of any less character, they would have given up my password," Leitner said. However, "what this shows is the importance of having information security embedded in the scheme of the network architecture."
DTRA does not have an automated security auditing tool; it relies on "flimsy" password protection for security, Leitner said. An automated tool would have "taken the man out of the loop," he said.
A spokesman for DTRA said the agency could not comment because the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is investigating the matter.
According to Leitner, DTRA managers recently beefed up the agency's adherence to the security precept of "need-to-know" access to classified information - a policy that requires users, despite their level of security clearance, to have a valid reason for why they need the information before they are granted access to it.
Although DTRA launched an investigation into the Leitner incident, several members of Congress want to hold additional hearings on the subject to protect those who step forward to inform lawmakers of dangerous security gaps and oversights.
Sources familiar with the investigation said witnesses are being subpoenaed for hearings that may result in significant changes to internal information security policies at agencies.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, said the incident reminded him of "mob tactics" and called on Defense Secretary William Cohen to become personally involved in the case. "It amazes me that the Department of Justice took months to access Wen Ho Lee's computer in their investigation of nuclear espionage at Los Alamos [National Laboratory], yet on the very day that Dr. Leitner was testifying before my committee, someone was trying to get into his computer without permission," Burton said. Lee is suspected of passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Chinese government.
Leitner testified one week after the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board issued a scathing report detailing intelligence and information system security failures throughout DOE. The findings of the report also led to Edward McCallum, DOE's former director of safeguards and security, being placed on administrative leave. However, McCallum apparently warned his superiors of security problems on several occasions during his 10-year tenure as director.
"This 'shoot the messenger' approach is not only grossly irresponsible, but it suggests that the administration is more committed to preventing further criticism of its programs than working to make credible reforms," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who recently asked his colleagues in the House to sign a letter addressed to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson urging him to denounce the retaliatory attacks against McCallum.
According to Leitner, his and other cases like it highlight the significant threat posed to government network security by insiders. "All of the focus is on Year 2000, and when it's not on Year 2000, it's on external hacker attacks," Leitner said. "However, the real danger is from within. The human factor is what saved the entire hard drive containing thousands of pages of classified documents from being compromised."
Tim Bass, president and chief executive officer of the security consulting firm The Silk Road Group, said the insider threat is not something to be ignored. "It is widely accepted by information security professionals that the possibility of insider misuse of information systems is much higher than the likelihood of outsider misuse," Bass said. "It is also widely accepted that the gravity or severity of computer misuse is much higher for insiders. Unfortunately, the marketplace tends to focus on the outsider threat, which is normally the least damaging and least likely to occur."
Mark Lowenthal, senior principal in the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence Division at SRA International Inc. and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence, said issuing policy guidelines to handle situations such as the Leitner case may not be as easy as it sounds.
"Your hardware and software belong to your employer, and given that it is a communications system, they have some right to monitor content," Lowenthal said. "That said, you cannot have a situation in which a supervisor unilaterally decides to look at your drives."