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Combat Volume 3
By Stephen Coonts
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Stephen Coonts
All rights reserved.
The secluded community just outside of Valparaiso, Chile, slumbered on behind the high walls and steel-reinforced gates that surrounded it. Other than the lazy swaying of branches stirred by a gentle offshore breeze, the only sound or movement disturbing the early-morning darkness was that created by the rhythmic footfalls on the pavement of a pair of security guards patrolling the empty streets of the well-manicured community. The two armed men did not live in any of the homes they were charged with protecting. Even if either one of them had been fortunate enough to possess the small fortune that ownership of property in the tiny village required, neither had the social credentials that would permit him to purchase even the smallest plot of ground within these walls. If they harbored any resentment over this fact, they dared not show it. The pay was too good and the work too easy to jeopardize. Their parents had taught them well. Only fools take risks when times were good and circumstances didn't require it.
Still, the guards were only human. On occasion a comment that betrayed their true feelings would slip out during the casual conversation that they engaged in during the long night. Upon turning a corner, one of the security guards took note of a flickering of light in a second-story window of one of the oversize homes. Slowing his pace, the hired guardian studied the window in an effort to determine if something was out of kilter. Belatedly, his partner took note of his concern. With a chuckle, the second guard dismissed the concerns of the first. "There is nothing going on up there that we need to bother ourselves with."
"And how would you know that?" the first asked as he kept one eye on the window.
"My sister, the one who is a cleaning woman, chatters incessantly about what she sees in each of these houses. That room, for example, is off-limits to her."
Rather than mollify his suspicions, these comments only piqued the first guard's interest. "And why is that? Is it the personal office of the owner?"
Letting out a loud laugh, the second guard shook his head. "Not hardly. It is the bedroom of a teenage boy."
Seeing the joke, the first guard let out a nervous chuckle. "What," he asked, "makes the bedroom of a teenage boy so important?"
"The boy is a computer rat," came the answer. "My sister says he has just about every sort of computer equipment imaginable cluttering the place."
"What does your sister know about computers?" the first asked incredulously.
Offended, his partner glared. "We are poor, not ignorant."
Realizing that he had unintentionally insulted his comrade, the first guard lowered his head. "I am sorry, I didn't mean to ..."
"But you did," the offended guard snapped. "What goes on in those rooms is not our concern anyway. We are paid to guard against criminals and terrorists, not speculate about what our employers do within the confines of their own homes." With that, he pivoted about and marched off, followed a few seconds later by his partner.
Neither man, of course, realized that the only terrorist within miles was already inside the walls of the quiet little community. In fact, they had been watching him, or more correctly, his shadow as he went about waging an undeclared war against the United States of America.
Alone in his room, Angelo Castalano sat hunched over the keyboard of his computer, staring at the screen. As he did night after night, young Angelo ignored the pile of schoolbooks that lay strewn across the floor of his small room and turned, instead, his full attention to solving a far more interesting problem. It concerned his latest assignment from the commander of the X Legion.
The "foot soldiers" in the X Legion were, for the most part, the sons of well-to-do South American parents, people who could be correctly referred to as the ruling elite. While Angelo's father oversaw the operation of a major shipping business in Valparaiso owned by a Hong Kong firm, his mother struggled incessantly to keep her place in the polite society of Chile that was, for her husband, just as important as his business savvy. Like their North American counterparts, the information age and modern society left them little time to tend to the children that were as much a symbol of a successful union as was a large house in the proper neighborhood. That Angelo's father had little time to enjoy either his son or house was viewed as a problem, nothing more. So, as he did with so many other problems he faced, the Chilean businessmen threw money and state-of-the-art equipment at it.
A computer, in and of itself, is an inert object. Like a projectile, it needs energy to propel it. Young Angelo and the electricity flowing from the overloaded wall socket provided that energy. But engaging in an activity can quickly becomes boring if there is nothing new or thrilling to capture a young, imaginative mind, especially when that activity involves an ultramodem data-crunching machine. Like the projectile, to have meaning the exercise of power must have a purpose, a target. That is where the X Legion came in.
The X Legion, properly pronounced Tenth as in the roman numeral, was a collection of young South and Central American computer geeks who had found each other as they crawled about the World Wide Web in search of fun, adventure, some sort of achievement. In the beginning they played simple games among themselves, games that involved world conquest, or that required each of the participants to amass great wealth by creating virtual stock portfolios. Slowly, and ever so innocently, the members of the X Legion began to break into the computer systems of international companies, not at all unlike those owned or operated by their own fathers. They did this, they told each other, in order to test their growing computer skills and engage in feats that had real and measurable consequences. "We live in a real world," a legionnaire in Argentina stated one night as they were just beginning to embark upon this new adventure. "So let us see what we can do in that world."
At first, the targets selected for their raids were chosen by the legionnaires themselves, without any controlling or centralized authority. This, quite naturally, led to arguments as fellow members of their group ridiculed the accomplishments of another if they thought the object of a fellow legionnaire's attack had been too easy.
"Manipulating the accounts of a Swiss bank must have more meaning," a Bolivian boy claimed, "than stealing from a local candy store." Though intelligent and articulate, no one had a clear idea of how best to gauge the relative value of their targets.
To resolve this chaotic state of affairs, a new member who used the screen name "longbow" volunteered to take on the task of generating both the targets to be attacked by the members of the legion and the relative value of those targets. Points for the successful completion of the mission would be awarded to the participants by longbow based upon the security measures that had to be overcome, the creativity that the hacker used in rummaging around in the targeted computer, and the overall cost that the company owning the hacked site ultimately had to pay to correct the problem the legionnaire created. How longbow managed to determine all of this was of no concern to the young men like Angelo who belonged to the legion. Longbow offered them real challenges and order in the otherwise chaotic and shapeless world in which they lived, but did not yet understand.
When they were sure he was not listening, which was rare, the rank and file of the legion discussed their self-appointed leader. It didn't matter to Angelo and other members of the X Legion that longbow was not from South or Central America. One of the first clues that brought this issue into question was the English and Spanish longbow used. Like all members of the X Legion, longbow switched between the two languages interchangeably. Since so many of the richest and most advanced businesses using the World Wide Web communicated in English, this was all but a necessity. When it came to his use of those languages, it appeared to the well-educated legionnaires that both Spanish and English were second languages to their taskmaster. Everything about longbow's verbiage was too exact, too perfect, much like the grammar a student would use.
That longbow might be using them for reasons that the young Latin American hackers could not imagine never concerned Angelo. Like his cyber compatriots, his world was one of words, symbols, data, and not people, nationals, and causes. Everything that they saw on their computer screen was merely images, two-dimensional representations. In addition to this self-serving disassociated rationale, there was the fear that longbow, who was an incredible treasure trove of tricks and tools useful to the legion of novice hackers, might take offense if they became too inquisitive about longbow's origins. The loss of their cyber master would result in anarchy, something these well-off cyber anarchists loathed.
While the security guards went about their rounds, protecting the young Chilean and his family from the outside world, Angelo was reaching out into that world. As he did each time he received a mission from longbow, Angelo did not concern himself with the "why" governing his specific tasking for the evening. Rather, he simply concentrated on the "how."
Upon returning from school that afternoon, Angelo had found explicit instructions from longbow on how to break into the computer system of the United States Army Matériel Command in Alexandria, Virginia. This particular system, Angelo found out quickly, handled requests for repair parts and equipment from American military units deployed throughout the world.
The "mission" Angelo had been assigned was to generate a false request, or alter an existing one, so that the requesting unit received repair parts or equipment that was of no earthly use to the unit in the field. Knowing full well that the standards used to judge the success of a mission concerned creativity as well as the cost of the damage inflicted, Angelo took his time in selecting both the target of his attack and the nature of the mischief he would inflict upon it. After several hours of scrolling through hundreds of existing requests, he hit upon one that struck his fancy.
It concerned a requisition that had been forwarded from an Army unit stationed in Kosovo to its parent command located in Germany. The requesting unit, an infantry battalion, had suffered a rash of accidents in recent months because of winter weather and lousy driving by Americans born and raised in states where the only snow anyone ever saw was on TV. Though the human toll had been minimal, the extensive damage to the battalion's equipment had depleted both its own reserve of on-hand spare parts as well as the stock carried by the forward-support maintenance unit in-country. While not every item on the extensive list of replacement parts was mission essential, some demanded immediate replacement. This earned those components deemed critical both a high priority and special handling. With the commander's approval, the parts clerk in Kosovo submitted a request, via the Army's own Internet system, to the division's main support battalion back in Germany to obtain these mission-essential items.
As was the habit of this particular parts clerk, he had waited until the end of the normal workday before submitting his required list of repair parts. In this way the clerk avoided having to go through the entire routine of entering the system, pulling up the necessary on-screen documents, and filling out all the unit data more than once a day. Though parts that had been designated mission essential and awarded a high priority were supposed to be acted upon as soon as they landed on the desk of the parts clerk, lax supervision at the forward-support unit where the clerk worked permitted personnel in his section to pretty much do things as they saw fit. So it should not have come as a great surprise that the parts clerk in Kosovo chose to pursue the path of least resistance, executing his assigned duties in a manner that was most expedient, for the clerk.
This little quirk left a window of opportunity for someone like Angelo to spoof the United States Army Matériel Command's computer system. Since the request was initiated in Kosovo and relayed to the forward-support battalion's parent unit after normal working hours in Kosovo, the personnel in Germany charged with reviewing that request were not at their desks. Those personnel had the responsibility of reviewing all requests from subordinate units to ensure that they were both valid and correct. They then had to make the decision as to whether the request from Kosovo would be filled using on-hand stocks in Germany or forwarding back to Army Matériel Command to be acted upon using Army-wide sources.
All of this was important, because it permitted Angelo an opportunity to do several things without anyone within the system knowing that something was amiss. The first thing Angelo did, as soon as he decided to strike here, was to change the letter-numeric part number of one of the items requested to that of another part, an item which Angelo was fairly sure would be of no use to the infantry unit in Kosovo.
The item Angelo hit upon to substitute was the front hand guards for M-16 rifles that had been cracked during one of the vehicular accidents. Switching over to another screen that had a complete listing of part numbers for other weapons in the Army's inventory, Angelo scrolled through the listings until he found something that struck his fancy. How wickedly wonderful it will be, the young Chilean thought as he copied the part number for the gun tube of a 155mm howitzer, for an infantry unit to receive six large-caliber artillery barrels measuring twenty feet in length instead of the rifle hand guards that it needed. Just the expense of handling the heavy gun tubes would be monumental. Only the embarrassment of the unit commander involved, Angelo imagined, would be greater.
Selecting the item to be substituted, then cutting and pasting the part number of the artillery gun tube in its place, was only the beginning. The next item on Angelo's agenda was to move the request along the chain, electronically approving it and forwarding it at each of the checkpoints along the information superhighway the request had to travel. Otherwise, one of the gate-keeping organizations along the way, such as the parent support battalion in Germany, the theater staff agency responsible for logistical support, or the Army Matériel Command in Virginia, would see that the item Angelo was using as a substitute was not authorized by that unit.
To accomplish this feat Angelo had to travel along the same virtual path that such a request normally traveled. At each point where an organization or staff agency reviewed the request, the young Chilean hacker had to place that agency's electronic stamp of approval upon the request and then whisk it away before anyone at the agency took note of the unauthorized action. This put pressure on Angelo, for he had but an hour or so before the parts clerks in Germany and the logistics staffers elsewhere in Germany switched on their computers to see what new requests had come in during the night. Once he had cleared those gates, he would have plenty of time to make his way through the stateside portion of the system since Chile was an hour ahead of the Eastern time zone.
It was in this endeavor that the tools and techniques that longbow had provided the legionnaires came into play. By using an account name that he had been given by longbow, Angelo was permitted to "go root." In the virtual world, being a "root" on a system is akin to being God. Root was created by network administrators to access every program and every file on a host computer, or any servers connected to it, to update or fix glitches in the system. Having root access also allows anyone possessing this divine power the ability to run any program or manipulate any file on the network. Once he had access as a root user on the Army computer system that handled the requisitioning and allocation of spare parts, Angelo was able to approve and move his request through the network without any of the gates along the way having an opportunity to stop it. In this way the request for the 155mm artillery howitzer gun tubes for the infantry battalion in Kosovo was pulled through the system from the highest level of the United States Army's logistical system rather than being pushed out of it from a unit at the lowest level.
Excerpted from Combat Volume 3 by Stephen Coonts. Copyright © 2001 Stephen Coonts. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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