Written by Robin Berger
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Topics: Congress, Computers

Monday, 15 November 2004

image for Congresswoman closes office over computer threat
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (center) explains the Mavis Beacon ten-finger typing method to a bored congressional intern

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On the eve of the return of a lame duck Congress, Zoe Lofgren has announced she will close her office on Capitol Hill. Lofgren said she fears "a possible cyberterror attack" that could harm her staff's computers or those of her visitors.

Lofgren is a Democrat who was re-elected in California's 16th congressional district. Her move follows that of Democratic Senator Mark Dayton of Minnesota, who closed his D.C. office in October, citing the threat of a physical terrorist attack.

Lofgren will move all of her computers and part of her staff to an office in the Fort Snelling Federal Building, replacing Senator Dayton and his office staff who recently stopped cowering from threats on Capitol Hill. Email and telephone calls to Lofgren will be routed to her California office.

Lofgren explained her reasons for fleeing Washington in an open letter published on Cnet.com. "Malicious code--viruses and worms--is being created to exploit software flaws within days, when only a year ago it would have taken months for such code to appear. Our water supply, electric grid, nuclear energy system and other critical infrastructures are interconnected and interdependent, increasing the likelihood that a cyberattack could disrupt major services and cripple economic activity.

"Indeed, if a cyberattack occurred at the same time as a physical attack," Lofgren asserted, "critical emergency response systems and communications operations could be taken out, increasing the confusion of an attack, and the number of casualties."

Lofgren is the ranking member of the House Cybersecurity, Science, and Research & Development Subcommittee. As such, she is in a key position to know about future cyberterror attacks, said Steven Beforebad, a senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "I'm thinking of turning off our website and fleeing the capitol myself," he said.

However, U.S. government officials said there was no new intelligence concerning a possible digital attack, and authorities said congressional members have not been advised to shut down their computers. "We continue to advise (people) to take caution ... but there's no new information that we've put out," said Sgt. Contrivia Chevy of the U.S. Capitol Cyber Law Enforcement Division.

But Lofgren told reporters in San Jose that Senate majority leader Bill Frist briefed lawmakers on a "top-secret cyberintelligence report." She claimed "I would not let my two children bring a GameBoy or an Xbox to Capitol Hill before inauguration day."

Lofgren said she could not give details of the cybersecurity report that Frist presented. She said she's asked Frist three times to convene a meeting to discuss the situation, but Frist has not agreed.

Lofgren is closing her office "out of extreme, but necessary, precaution to protect the safety of my Congressional computers. I feel compelled to do so, because I will not be here in Washington to share in what I consider to be an unacceptably greater risk to their safety."

California is one of the top states in terms of technology. Lofgren herself uses one of the more powerful computers in her office, with an Intel 80486 processor running at 75MHz and a 1.6GB Western Digital hard disk.

Senator John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the House and Senate leaderships have kept elected officials "fully apprised" of threats against the U.S. Capitol, but he has seen nothing to prompt the need to close offices. "Even when we are out of session," he said, "we have a job to run web servers for our constituents, and in the war on cyberterror, we can't let non-imminent threats prevent us from using our computers."

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