Cyberwar And Sabotage

Covert action is seductive to policymakers in a bind. When diplomacy fails and force falls short, presidents often turn to the CIA for secret solutions to vexing problems. Unable to make the air war against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic effective, and unwilling to invade with ground troops, President Clinton has decided to try a clandestine third way. Earlier this month national-security adviser Sandy Berger presented Clinton with a covert plan to squeeze Milosevic.

The president liked the idea. Senior intelligence officials tell NEWSWEEK that last week Clinton issued a "finding," a highly classified document authorizing the spy agency to begin secret efforts "to find other ways to get at Milosevic," in the words of one official. Two weeks ago Berger secretly briefed members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees about the details of the two-part plan. According to sources who have read the finding, the CIA will train Kosovar rebels in sabotage--age-old tricks like cutting telephone lines, blowing up buildings, fouling gasoline reserves and pilfering food supplies--in an effort to undermine public support for the Serbian leader and damage Yugoslav targets that can't be reached from the air. That much is unsurprising. But the CIA has also been instructed to conduct a cyberwar against Milosevic, using government hackers to tap into foreign banks and, in the words of one U.S. official, "diddle with Milosevic's bank accounts."

The finding was immediately criticized by some lawmakers who questioned the wisdom--and legality--of launching a risky covert action that, if discovered, could prolong the war, alienate other NATO countries--and possibly blow back on the United States. Under the finding, the allies were to be kept in the dark about the plan. Other members of Congress privy to the finding wondered about its timing. Why did Clinton authorize the operation just as diplomats had begun making progress on a peace agreement? The White House declined to comment on the finding, and NEWSWEEK does not have access to the entire document. But some intelligence officials with knowledge of its contents worry that the finding was put together too hastily, and that the potential consequences haven't been fully thought out. "If they pull it off, it will be great," says one government cyberwar expert. "If they screw it up, they are going to be in a world of trouble."

By far the most controversial--and probably most difficult--part of the operation would be the effort to hack into Milosevic's foreign bank accounts. Intelligence sources believe they have identified banks in several countries, including Russia, Greece and Cyprus, where the Serb leader has hidden millions of dollars. But the Hollywood vision of a brainy nerd draining bank accounts from his computer at CIA headquarters is a fantasy. According to government intelligence experts, agents would have to visit each of the banks, set up new accounts, then carefully watch how the institution operates and look for weak links in its security. The National Security Agency's hackers would use that information to try to overcome today's sophisticated encryption software and fire walls. If they gained access, the hackers could do almost anything they liked with Milosevic's cash--steal it, move it to a dummy account or slowly drain it away a few thousand dollars at a time.

But should they? The idea of a U.S.-sponsored plan to break into foreign banks unnerves some intelligence officials, who point out that the operation would be a breach of national sovereignty in friendly countries and open the door to computer attacks on U.S. banks. What's more, the United States would be the main loser if confidence in the world banking system were undermined.

The sabotage plan also entails some serious problems. The CIA would somehow have to find and train guerrillas without helping the Kosovo Liberation Army, which the administration itself labeled a terrorist organization just a year ago and which is believed to fund its operations with profits from international drug smuggling. In the chaos now prevailing in Kosovar refugee camps it will not be easy for the CIA to make sure the anti-Milosevic rebels it signs up have no KLA ties. Intelligence officials also worry it would be difficult to control the U.S.-trained rebels once boot camp is over and they are set loose on Milosevic. "I'm afraid they could use their training to carry out atrocities," says John Rothrock, the Air Force's former chief of intelligence planning. "If they think they can rein them in, it's tremendous naivete."

Congress can complain all it likes, but it has no legal authority to stop the finding. Lawmakers can try to block the plan by refusing to provide money for the covert action, but the president can tap into his emergency funds to finance it. At this point, it is not at all certain that the finding will ultimately be carried out. If the grumblings from the Hill and the intelligence community grow too loud, or if the risk-averse CIA chooses to drag its feet, the president may opt to quietly kill the finding--and pretend it never existed.