|Military beefs up Internet arsenal|
The move comes as al-Qaeda and other groups fighting in Iraq and elsewhere have expanded their activities on the Internet and increased the sophistication and volume of their videos and messages. Much of the material is designed to raise money and recruit fighters for Iraq.
"You should not let them operate uncontested" on the Internet and elsewhere in cyberspace, said Marine Brig. Gen. John Davis, who heads a military command located at the National Security Agency. The command was established to develop ways to attack computer networks.
Davis and other officials declined to say whether the military has actually attacked any networks, which would require presidential authorization. The techniques are highly classified.
Pentagon contract documents show the military asks companies to develop a "full spectrum … of computer network attack techniques." Run by the Air Force Research Laboratory, this program aims to spend $40 million over four years, documents show.
The growth in offensive capabilities signals a shift in military thinking from just monitoring terrorist websites for intelligence to attacking those sites.
"The offensive is increasingly on leaders' minds," said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who also works for the Defense Department on cyberwar issues.
Some officials say cyberattacks can result in losing critical intelligence.
"You always have the built-in tension between the operator who wants to destroy the target and the intelligence officer who wants to use the target to gain more information," said Lani Kass, director of the Air Force's cyberspace task force.
"Our opponents do a heck of a lot more than just watch us in cyberspace," Davis said. "They are acting in cyberspace. We need to develop options so that we can … dominate cyberspace."
Cyberattacks can take different forms, including eliminating terrorist websites and creating doubts among insurgents about their networks' security, said Arquilla, who favors an offensive approach he calls a "virtual scorched-earth policy."
Armed groups in Iraq videotape nearly all of their attacks on U.S. forces to help magnify their impact.
"Everything they do in Iraq and Afghanistan is geared toward propaganda," said Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., who's on the House Armed Services Committee.
The videos and messages are "getting more and more professional," said Andretta Summerville of iDefense, a private contractor that monitors terrorist activity on the Internet.
Some sites find recruits and push "them toward a pipeline that ends in suicide attacks," said Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin, a spokesman for Central Command, which runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Attacking websites may have limited value, said Ben Venzke of IntelCenter, a contractor that monitors terrorist websites and Internet forums. "The problem is the nature of the Internet itself," he said. "It can always come back up in 10 seconds."