Mil­i­tary seeks civil­ians with high-tech skills to com­bat mil­i­tant threats

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY LOLITA C. BALDOR

A decade ago, he was a young Army sol­dier train­ing Iraqi troops when he no­ticed their prim­i­tive fil­ing sys­tem: hand­writ­ten notes threaded with dif­fer­ent col­ors of yarn, stacked in piles. For or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sake, he built them a sim­ple com­puter data­base.

Now an Army re­servist, the ma­jor is tak­ing a break from his civil­ian high­tech job to help Amer­ica’s tech­no­log­i­cal fight against Is­lamic State. He’s part of a grow­ing force of ex­perts the Pen­tagon has as­sem­bled to de­feat the ex­trem­ists.

“The abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in some way in a real mis­sion, that is ac­tu­ally some­thing that’s rare, that you can’t find in pri­vate sec­tor,” said the 38-year-old Ne­braska na­tive who is work­ing at U.S. Cy­ber Com­mand at Fort Meade, Mary­land. “You’re part of a larger team putting your skills to use, not just op­ti­miz­ing clicks for a dig­i­tal ad, but op­ti­miz­ing the abil­ity to counter ISIS or con­trib­ute to the se­cu­rity of our na­tion.”

Last year, then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that the United States was los­ing the cy­ber­war against the mil­i­tants. He pushed the Cy­ber Com­mand to be more ag­gres­sive.

In re­sponse, the Pen­tagon un­der­took an ef­fort to in­cor­po­rate cy­ber tech­nol­ogy into its daily mil­i­tary fight, in­clud­ing new ways to dis­rupt the en­emy’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions, re­cruit­ing, fundrais­ing and pro­pa­ganda.

To speak with some­one at the front lines of this cam­paign, The As­so­ci­ated Press agreed to with­hold the ma­jor’s name. The mil­i­tary says he could be threat­ened or tar­geted by the mil­i­tants if he is iden­ti­fied pub­licly. The ma­jor and other of­fi­cials wouldn’t pro­vide pre­cise de­tails on the highly clas­si­fied work he is do­ing.

But Lt. Gen. Paul Naka­sone, com­man­der of U.S. Army Cy­ber Com­mand, said the ma­jor is bring­ing new ex­per­tise for iden­ti­fy­ing en­emy net­works, pin­point­ing sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tors or de­vel­op­ers, and po­ten­tially mon­i­tor­ing how IS’ on­line traf­fic moves.

He “has the abil­ity to bring an an­a­lytic fo­cus of what the threat is do­ing, cou­pled with a re­ally deep un­der­stand­ing of how net­works run,” Gen. Naka­sone said, de­scrib­ing such con­tri­bu­tions as “re­ally help­ful for us.” He out­lined a key ques­tion for the mil­i­tary: “How do you im­pact an ad­ver­sary that’s us­ing cy­berspace against us?”

The mil­i­tary is look­ing for new ways to bring in more civil­ians with high-tech skills who can help against IS and pre­pare for the new range of tech­no­log­i­cal threats the na­tion will face. Gen. Naka­sone said that means get­ting Guard and Re­serve mem­bers with tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise in dig­i­tal foren­sics, math cryp­to­anal­y­sis and writ­ing com­puter code. The chal­lenge is how to find them.

“I would like to say it’s this great data­base that we have, that we’ve been able to plug in and say, ‘Show me the best tool de­vel­op­ers and an­a­lysts that you have out there,’” Gen. Naka­sone said. “We don’t have that yet. We are go­ing to have one, though, by June.”

The Army Re­serve is start­ing a pilot pro­gram cat­a­loging sol­diers’ tal­ents. Among 190,000 Army re­servists, Naka­sone said there might be up to 15,000 with some type of cy­ber-re­lated skills.

But there are le­gal and pri­vacy hur­dles, and any data­base hinges on re­servists vol­un­tar­ily and ac­cu­rately pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion on their ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Nor­mally, Gen. Naka­sone said a re­servist’s record in­cludes back­ground, train­ing, as­sign­ments and schools at­tended.

“I would like to know ev­ery sin­gle per­son that has been trained as a cer­ti­fied eth­i­cal hacker,” he said.

The Army has been steadily build­ing cy­ber mis­sion teams, as part of a broader De­fense Depart­ment un­der­tak­ing. Of the 41 Army teams, just over half come from the Army Na­tional Guard and Army Re­serve.

Gen. Naka­sone said of­fi­cials were still work­ing out costs.

“The money will come,” he said, be­cause build­ing a ready cy­ber force is nec­es­sary.

The Army ma­jor said oth­ers in the civil­ian high-tech in­dus­try are in­ter­ested in help­ing. Many would like to par­tic­i­pate “in some­thing big­ger than them­selves, some­thing that has in­trin­sic value for the na­tion,” he said.

The ma­jor said he has signed up for a se­cond one-year tour in his cy­ber job. He is look­ing at op­tions for stay­ing longer.

“I find what I’m do­ing very sat­is­fy­ing, be­cause I have an op­por­tu­nity to im­ple­ment things, to get things done and see them work and see tan­gi­ble re­sults,” he said. “I’m not mak­ing as much as I was on the civil­ian side. But the sat­is­fac­tion is that strong, and is that valu­able, that it’s worth it.”

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