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Cyber war poses challenge for Americans who contract with foreign nations

| Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 6:38 p.m.

In the spring of 2010, a sheik in the government of Qatar began talks with the American consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton about developing a plan to build a cyber-operations center. He feared Iran's growing ability to attack its regional foes in cyberspace and wanted Qatar to have the means to respond.

When Booz Allen was preparing their proposal in Tysons Corner, Va., J. Michael McConnell, a senior vice president at Booz Allen and former director of national intelligence in the George W. Bush administration, learned that Qatar wanted U.S. personnel at the keyboards of its proposed cyber-center, potentially to carry out attacks on regional adversaries.

“Are we talking about actually conducting these operations?” McConnell asked, according to several people at the meeting. When someone said that was the idea, McConnell uttered two words: “Hold it.”

Calls were made to U.S. government officials and experts in the elite world of defense consulting. It became clear to McConnell that the notion of conducting attacks was a deal-killer.

“We can't have Americans at the keyboard running offensive operations,” said McConnell, a retired admiral who also ran the top-secret National Security Agency, according to those present. “It could be interpreted as an act of war.”

The Qatar incident highlights the reality of a new arms race — the worldwide push to develop offensive and defensive cyber-capabilities.

The potential worldwide market means that U.S. companies must walk a fine line between selling their products and staying within export controls that are struggling to keep pace with the rapid technological advances in the field.

But countries in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere need help. In August, a cyberattack shut down the website at RasGas, a major producer of liquid natural gas in Qatar. A similar attack destroyed computer data at Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil and natural gas operator. In both cases, the U.S. intelligence community concluded Iran was the aggressor.

U.S. officials note that they can regulate only American companies. “There's a lot more to be worried about when it comes to firms, organized crime, and others outside the United States who may recognize there are certain countries and organizations willing to pay quite a lot of money” for destructive malware, said a senior U.S. defense official.

Benjamin Powell, a former national security official, said the uncertainty of the new terrain means companies are treading carefully. “It's a sensitive thing for a company to go down the path of training for offense, even with approval,” said Powell. “You're closer to the pointy end of the spear.”

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