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U.S., Iraq brace for cyber war

Imagine Iraqi commanders getting misleading text messages on their cell phones. They appear to contain orders from Saddam Hussein but are actually sent by the U.S. military in disguise, directing Iraqi troops to a trap.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine Iraqi commanders getting misleading text messages on their cell phones. They appear to contain orders from Saddam Hussein but are actually sent by the U.S. military in disguise, directing Iraqi troops to a trap. Or how about a radar that confuses the Iraqi air defense system by showing U.S. bombers in the wrong locations, or heading in the wrong direction?

ALTHOUGH “INFORMATION OPERATIONS” have been tools of warfare for centuries, the Internet and other technologies are boosting their capabilities - and the stakes.

Already the Pentagon has sent unsolicited e-mails to Iraqi generals, encouraging them to defect.

“Warfare is less and less about pushing men and machines around the battlefield and more and more about pushing electrons and photons,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

The Pentagon has been mostly mum about what it can do and plans. Military analysts with direct knowledge of them would not reveal specifics, fearful that Iraqis could develop countermeasures.

“One thing I can tell you for sure: People who really know about these programs can’t tell you about these programs,” said Bruce Berkowitz, a senior analyst with Rand. But Berkowitz did spell out the goals: Shape perceptions and get ahead of the enemy’s decision-making intelligence through spying, jamming and deception.

Chris Prosise, a Foundstone Inc. security researcher formerly with the Air Force’s Information Warfare Center, said the U.S. military has the same tools available to computer hackers. A virus, for instance, can create “backdoor” openings for later break-ins.

Information operations could also involve steering Iraqis to less-secure communications channels for easier spying, such as by destroying the infrastructure required for encryption. That can be done with bombs, computer attacks or, perhaps, electromagnetic-pulse weapons, which disable electronics with massive bursts of electricity.

During the Civil War, when signal flags were used, Union forces broke Confederate coding schemes and diverted the South’s troops by planting bogus messages, Berkowitz said.

And during World War II, Allies fooled Germans by “leaking” battle plans involving nonexistent troops.

INTERNET HURTS AS WELL AS HELPS The Internet makes deception easier. Getting away with it, though, can be harder. Saddam can check Google for references to an Army division or read local newspapers reporting on their units’ whereabouts.

“These soldiers are still getting haircuts and shopping, and local merchants are going to report massive drop-offs in sales due to troops deploying,” said John Pike, director of, a research organization.

And Iraq can hack U.S. computers from afar just as the Pentagon can break into Iraqi systems. Defense is as much a part of the preparations.

Sgt. Maj. Lewis Matson, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, would only confirm two previously used “propaganda” methods.

For months, planes have been dropping leaflets over the “no-fly” zones, warning Iraqi soldiers not to fire at American aircraft and stressing Saddam’s suppression of the Iraqi people. The 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard also has been broadcasting recorded radio messages from EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft.

One of the six Commando Solos, which can also broadcast television, has an antenna for retransmitting live satellite feeds, said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Kovach, an electronics instructor with the 193rd wing.

Its first use could come in Iraq.

One hypothetical use of such a transmitter could be to encourage surrender by beaming into Iraq doctored video of Saddam being captured. Such tactics could backfire, however, if a conflicting version were to appear via one of the many information sources now available - radio, Internet, satellite TV.

Military officials privately acknowledge that they’ve sent e-mail to Iraqi generals, encouraging dissent and defections and warning against following any order to use weapons of mass destruction.

HEAVY INVESTMENT BY GOVERNMENT The U.S. Strategic Command, meanwhile, has the Joint Task Force for Computer Network Operations available for computer attacks. The National Security Agency also has invested heavily in this area over the past five years, said intelligence expert and author James Bamford.

Bill Sweetman, a contributing editor with Jane’s International Defense Review, said the U.S. military benefits from its familiarity with the Russian computer systems used by Iraqis.

The Chinese-built fiber-optic cables running Iraq’s air defenses may be harder to penetrate than the airwaves, but military hackers can do much more — and quietly — once they are breached, Brookings Institution fellow Peter Singer said.

There has also been talk of disrupting bank accounts through hacking, though retired Air Force Col. Alan Campen, an editor of four books on cyberwarfare, warns that doing so could hurt the global financial system.

“When you’re launching a computer attack against somebody, how do you know you’ve got them and haven’t hurt yourself?” he asked.

President Bush already has signed a secret order to develop guidelines on launching cyberattacks. Once bombs start dropping, Bamford said, the military and intelligence communities will likely get all the authority they want.

“They’ll use this whole thing as a big training ground,” Bamford said. “They’ll experiment with everything they’ve been thinking about for a long time.”

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