WASHINGTON (05/08/2000) - When agencies battled the "Melissa" virus in March 1999, systems administrators attributed the government's success to coordinated, timely alerts and good planning. But when the "ILOVEYOU" virus came to town last week, the federal response was anything but coordinated, agencies said.
The virus, also known as the "love letter" and the "love bug," hit virtually every agency, including U.S. Congress, last week. It hit potentially more than 1 million systems worldwide, overwriting files, erasing hard drives and possibly stealing thousands of password files. At least two malicious variants appeared by late Thursday.
The Federal Computer Incident Response Capability is supposed to keep agencies abreast of security flaws and threats, as it did during the Melissa scare. But this time, most agencies learned about the virus through unofficial channels - including phone calls from the U.S. Department of Defense and early-morning news broadcasts - hours before FedCIRC got the word out.
FedCIRC found itself caught short because many agencies shut down their systems when they learned of the virus, including the General Services Administration, which controls the main FedCIRC server.
"The distribution of alert information was somewhat hampered by the nonresponsiveness of various mail hosts due to the impact of the virus, and in many cases we resorted to phone and faxes," said Dave Jarrell, director of FedCIRC. "We put corrections and tools and guidance up there to help agencies, but if they don't get my e-mail, they can't go out and check the resources."
FedCIRC is trying to put together its own server and system for sending out information to help avoid future bottlenecks in the alert process, Jarrell said. "The problem is that we don't have the funding to do this right now," he said. "We've got the plan, but we don't have the money to do what we want to do."
DOD's Joint Task Force for Computer Network Defense first learned about the ILOVEYOU virus in the early-morning hours on Thursday from military units in Europe. A Pentagon source confirmed that seven out of nine regional commanders in chief immediately shut down their e-mail servers. About 1,000 computers throughout DOD, including some classified e-mail systems, were affected by the virus' Trojan Horse code, the source said.
A spokeswoman for the Pentagon said shutting down e-mail systems should have been "a last resort." DOD immediately called as many agencies as possible, including phoning the Education Department by 7:30 a.m.
But many Pentagon officials were not satisfied with the time it took for the JTF-CND warning to be issued, according to Maj. Perry Noius, spokesman for U.S.
Space Command, which oversees operations of the JTF-CND.
"It took about an hour and a half to process the information and to figure out exactly what the virus was," Noius said. "Then we sent out a worldwide warning [by 9 a.m.] to the Defense Department, the CIA, NSA, FBI and [the National Reconnaissance Office]. From there, it was up to the FBI to notify the other departments and agencies."
Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said that once the Pentagon notified his department, "we were able to take defensive measures immediately."
The Transportation Department managed to contain the ILOVEYOU virus early on, thanks to warnings received from informal internal channels and word-of-mouth, said George Molaski, DOT's chief information officer. A computer system engineer at DOT was able to pass on the information to some DOT officials as early as 5 a.m., but a notice from FedCIRC didn't appear until after noon Thursday, Molaski said.
G. Clay Hollister, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said being aware of the problem early helped limit the severity of the virus' effect on the agency.
"Our enterprise security manager and national e-mail administrator learned about it [Wednesday] night, and the first message with it arrived at about 8:30 [Thursday] morning," Hollister said. "At 8:32 a.m., a throttle was built in to our national firewall that limited any messages in or out to 10K...since they knew the message itself was about 15K."
The Love Letter e-mail hit five computers at the Census Bureau's main office in Suitland, Maryland, but Census 2000 data was never in any danger of being compromised. Census data is kept in a mainframe computer that has no outside access to e-mail.
The Department of Veterans Affairs shut down its e-mail system for 24 hours to prevent the Love bug from doing damage.
Several agencies expressed concern that FedCIRC, the JTF-CND and other alert organizations did not put out warnings until mid-Thursday. But some officials suggested that it might be better to wait for a full analysis of a virus rather than act on rumors circulating through unofficial channels.
"Your worst enemy in a situation like this is a panic response," Jarrell said.
"You need to think out your response and the implications, and if you shut down your connection, that has an impact."
Ben Venzke, manager of intelligence production for Infrastructure Defense Inc., said that is the wrong answer. "Speed is of the utmost importance, and you simply can't rely on one means of communications," he said. "If you tell the client two hours after the fact, you are not doing them a service," he said.
"Five, 10, 20 minutes makes a real difference when everybody is arriving at work. Users need to know what to look out for."
John Thomas, deputy general manager and vice president of AverStar Inc.'s Services Group and former commander of the Pentagon's Global Network Operations and Security Center, said DOD's worldwide presence was a major benefit in this case and provided critical indications and warning.
"Spread [of a virus] is an operational issue not a viral issue," Thomas said.
Fortunately, DOD has a well-established "culture of reporting" in place, he said. "There needs to be some sort of secure alert network. However, the phone is still a very viable option."
--Natasha Haubold, Judi Hasson, Dan Caterinicchia, Daniel Keegan and Paula Shaki Trimble contributed to this article.