Campaign Cyberattacks Prompt Swift Transition

Both the Obama and McCain campaign computer systems came under cyberattack earlier this year. The attacks were serious enough to prompt an FBI investigation.

The Obama campaign first discovered something was amiss with its campaign's computer system back in August. Initially, staff members thought they were dealing with a run-of-the-mill computer virus — perhaps someone was breaking into their system to get the campaign's credit card numbers or steal their passwords. It was only after they asked the FBI to step in that they realized something much more sinister was afoot.

The FBI told them that someone was actually downloading the bulk of their files. And it wasn't just the Obama campaign in the cross hairs. The McCain campaign was apparently having similar issues. The breach was first reported by Newsweek magazine.

Government officials familiar with the case told NPR that the attack is likely to have originated from China. The working hypothesis is that whoever was behind the attack was going after information, not money. They wanted to glean information on policy positions and the thinking that went into them. Officials said they believe the culprits wanted to see how the policies were developed — tracking discussion threads to gain an advantage in future negotiations.

The FBI has been dealing with a lot of this kind of cyber-espionage. Universities have been major victims, and one of the FBI's big initiatives has been working with schools to help safeguard sensitive research.

Cyberterrorism is just one of the many issues on which the FBI is preparing to brief the Obama team. FBI officials told NPR that the pre-Sept. 11 world doesn't provide much guidance on how to get new administrations properly briefed.

Before the al-Qaida attacks, FBI transition briefings included detailed discussions on specific crime fighting and techniques. Now the briefings include a discussion of terrorist threat trip wires, attack prevention and how to fight spies — not just at home, but on the Internet.

That's one reason there seems to have been some unprecedented cooperation so far during the post-election transition. There is real concern that terrorists might try to take advantage of a time when this country's guard might be down. The first World Trade Center attack came just weeks after the Clinton administration took office in 1993. The cooperation, security clearances and early terrorism briefings are all about trying to avoid any security lapses between administrations.

President-elect Obama dodged a question about his terrorism briefings during his first news conference Friday. When a reporter asked whether anything he had heard during his first briefing worried him, Obama declined to answer. The only thing he would allow was that while intelligence had gotten better, it wasn't necessarily where he wanted it to be.

Teams from the Obama camp are expected to start parachuting into various agencies next week. They are expected at the Department of Homeland Security and will very likely drop by the FBI. The idea is for these teams to work with people who are already doing these jobs so they can make the handoff to the new administration as seamless as possible.

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