WASHINGTON -- Reliance on the Internet has made the nation vulnerable to attacks by terrorists who strike through computers rather than with bombs or bullets, a White House security adviser said Thursday at a cyberthreat summit.
"We could wake one morning and find a city, or a sector of the country, or the whole country have an electric power problem, a transportation problem or a telecommunication problem because there was a surprise attack using information warfare," said Richard Clarke, the National Security Council adviser who heads counterterrorism efforts.
Clarke said most Americans fail to realize how dependent they have become on computers -- not only at home or at the office, but also to run their electricity, telephone, transportation and other infrastructure systems. Clarke compared the reliance to former drug addicts enrolled in a recovery program.
"We need to take a lesson from that -- at least they know they have a dependency problem. Many of you are still in denial," he told his audience during his keynote address. "Many people in the United States are still in denial."
The summit, intended to raise awareness about computer security awareness, follows a string of electronic attacks launched against federal government Web sites, including those run by the White House, the Senate, the FBI and the U.S. Army's main Internet site.
Last month, the head of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center testified before Congress about the agency's struggle to keep up its battle against threats posed by computer-savvy terrorists and hackers trying to break into the government's most sensitive data networks.
And, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report warning that computer systems at the Defense Department, law enforcement and private industries are at risk because of poor management and lax oversight.
Clarke said the nation's frenzy over the Y2K computer bug has made it even more vulnerable to cyber attacks. He said technicians hired to make a company's computer system Y2K compliant could easily slip "a little Trojan horse or malicious code" into the system instead.
Clarke's warning echoed one issued by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, during a recent speech at the National Press Club. Bennett, chairman of the Senate's Year 2000 Committee, said he wouldn't be surprised to see his panel continue work next year on problems uncovered by the Y2K bug -- mainly security and reliability.
"We expect that (terrorists) will attempt to use Y2K as a cover for putting some kind of attack into a vulnerable place," Bennett said. "That is, when a Y2K solution goes in, they will fly underneath that with an attack of their own that will shut the system down and then you won't know whether the system shutdown was because of a terrorists attack or because of a Y2K accident."
Clarke said the government has taken numerous steps to counter potential cyber attacks, including stepping up intelligence efforts, improving systems to detect intrusions and working with the private industries to come up with solutions.