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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

OK. Let's review some of the action in the cyber war over WikiLeaks.

DON GONYEA, host:

First, the website released thousands of confidential U.S. documents.

INSKEEP: Then, companies working with WikiLeaks stopped cooperating with it.

GONYEA: And then, computer hackers started attacking the companies. It was called Operation Payback.

INSKEEP: The next move belonged to the companies and maybe the U.S. Justice Department, though prosecutors aren't sure what to do. We start our coverage with NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Mark Rasch started the Justice Department unit that's searching for the hackers who lashed out in support of WikiLeaks. But Rasch doesn't have great expectations for criminal indictments against the people who brought down the websites of MasterCard and PayPal. That's because many of them operate in a shadowy, online world too far away.

Mr. MARK RASCH (U.S. Department of Justice): I mean, if you have a very successful or high-profile attack, or an attack that causes a tremendous amount of damage because of its timing, you'll at least get an investigation. Let's face it. Most computer crimes are not prosecuted because we rarely catch the people responsible.

JOHNSON: There's already a potent law on the books that the Justice Department can use. It's called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and that law makes it a felony to transmit programs that intentionally cause damage to a computer in the U.S.

U.S. investigators are hunting for the leaders of the hacking operation, and tracing anonymous hackers who did a bad job of disguising their identities. But Rasch says prosecutors weigh a whole bunch of factors.

Mr. RASCH: What we may be looking at is 15- and 16-year-old kids who do this sort of not as a prank, but as a protest. And do we really want to spend the time, the money, the energy and the resources to bring a bunch of these kids over from Belgium or Holland or the Netherlands?

Mr. CHARLES DODD (Cyber-Security Consultant): But what kind of message does it send out there, when no one's doing any kind of retaliation and you get one, you know, Dutch kid, and you get one or two people out there? But there are hundreds of thousands of systems being compromised right now to propagate this attack.

JOHNSON: That's Charles Dodd. He consults with the U.S. government on cyber security, and he's worried that Operation Payback will give hackers and more dangerous people some bad ideas for the future.

Mr. DODD: I'm afraid it's going to probably set a precedent. It's going to be one of those events that happened, that do show the rest of the community out there - and the rest of the world - the power of cyberattacks.

JOHNSON: But other activists who support the U.S. government, including a former military man who uses the nickname Jester, have launched their own cyber-attacks on WikiLeaks itself. And should the Justice Department and the FBI be investigating them?

That issue and others could come up this week, when the House Judiciary Committee holds the first hearing on WikiLeaks and the law.

Stewart Baker wrote a book on cyber threats, and he says congressional attention could help.

Mr. STEWART BAKER (Author): I do think that there are a variety of holes in our legal system that this has exposed. You know, we treat bootleg copies of Hollywood movies with far more protection than we give to classified secrets of the United States government.

JOHNSON: Baker says that's because movie studios can slap websites with heavy fines if they play too much of a new film. But the release of secret State Department cables isn't treated the same way under the law, because the First Amendment makes it hard for the government to go after media outlets that publish the secret documents. And WikiLeaks, and the hackers who support it, say that the controversial website is a media outlet, too.

Rasch, the former computer crime prosecutor, says the government and industry have to take matters into their own hands.

Mr. RASCH: Cybercrime occurs transnationally. It occurs everywhere at the same time. But we are divided into political borders. And so hackers can act at the speed of light, and prosecutors and lawyers act at the speed of law.

JOHNSON: The U.S. military has already made it harder to access certain computer databases thought to be the source of the latest WikiLeaks documents. But that, experts say, is only the first step.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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