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‘Scrambling Data’ a Greater Threat Than Hacking 

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By Stew Magnuson and Matt Rusling 

SAN DIEGO — Hackers defacing websites or stealing information is bad, but the destruction of computer data could be worse, said Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, in one of his last speeches as a member of the Bush administration.

“The United States is the most vulnerable nation on the face of the Earth to cyber-attack,” said McConnell. “For a simple reason,” he added. “We are the most dependent.”

Hacking and denial of service, where a foreign country basically shuts down another’s Internet service, are two well known vulnerabilities, he said.

But “data destruction” is a greater — albeit a lesser known — threat, he insisted. Banks could be prime targets.

The U.S. financial system is based on accounting entries. Banks don’t keep cash or gold on hand anymore. It’s all data stored on servers, he said.

“If someone can scramble the data, it could potentially destroy a bank,” he said. “It could have a cascading effect [on the economy],” he said at the Milcom conference here.

This data is the “soft underbelly” of what makes the nation function, he added.

His conclusion comes from a intelligence forecast released between the presidential election and the inauguration so it would not color the results of the vote.

Meanwhile, al Qaida is still the number one threat to the United States, McConnell said.

Since January 2007, the effectiveness of al Qaida in Iraq has declined by 65 to 80 percent, he said. While the “surge” was a factor, he attributed some of this success to better collaboration and the sharing of information between the Defense Department and other intelligence agencies.

Improved surveillance tools are also among the factors that lessen the ability of foreign fighters to cause mayhem in Iraq, he said.

“That’s the good news. The bad news is that many are walking away,” he said.

Many of those foreign fighters in Iraq are leaving for Afghanistan, North Africa, Yemen, and other locales.

“The problem has been contained in one area, but is potentially growing in another,” he said.

His remarks were made a week before the devastating attacks in Mumbai, India, in November.

Senior al Qaida leaders based in Pakistan’s tribal zones are currently more focused on their personal survival than planning attacks on the United States and Europe, he said.

Some members there are quitting the organization altogether. The goal is to get more members to walk away than to join, he said. “We’ve had great success, but the question is how do we sustain this?”

Moderate Islamic leaders are increasingly condemning al Qaida because most of their victims are Muslims. But Yemen, Lebanon, Somalia, and other hotspots are seeing increases in al Qaida activity, he said.
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