ST. PAUL (AP) -- As pictures of bad guys flashed on a screen above him, the FBI's top local counterterrorism agent gave a rapid-fire rundown of recent cases, complete with such details as which felon soiled his pants when captured.
The briefing wasn't for cops, it was for computer experts, members of the FBI's InfraGard program, which aims to organize private businesses into a sort of citizens' brigade in defense of the nation's infrastructure.
"They're out there, they're our eyes and ears," says Paul McCabe, an FBI supervisory special agent who oversees the Minnesota chapter.
Since Sept. 11, interest in Minnesota's new chapter has skyrocketed, McCabe says, and other chapters report similar increases.
InfraGard was begun as a pilot program in Cleveland nearly five years ago and expanded nationwide by President Clinton in 1998. Its mission is to protect all aspects of the nation's infrastructure, from phone lines to water systems.
In practice, computer experts dominate the groups, says John Sheridan, head of the Michigan chapter and executive director of a national InfraGard group of manufacturers.
Companies don't have much control over their electricity or water, he says. "They're concerned about attacks on all infrastructure. The computer guy is more likely to be in a position to do something about it."
The FBI provides the businesses in InfraGard with secure Web sites, open only to member companies where individuals have undergone background checks. It also provides secure e-mail systems on which to exchange information about new threats, countermeasures, technical vulnerabilities and incidents.
There are about 1,000 members with secure access and 1,500 more unsecured members nationwide.
Since the attacks, the secure members have been getting almost daily alerts related to terrorism.
In exchange, the members are asked to contact the FBI when their businesses are hit by crimes that might well be repeated elsewhere. A hacker out for credit card numbers, for example, might try to penetrate a string of banks in rapid succession. After one bank discovers an intrusion, an alert could be sent to all.
Early this month, when the FBI issued a private warning to law enforcement agencies in eight Western states about possible attacks on suspension bridges, members of InfraGard were in the private loop.
FBI officials say they can't supply numbers on how many such tips have led to prosecutions, and they're leery of providing any information that might point to security breaches at specific corporations.
But agents offered this example: In August, one large Midwestern corporation reported through InfraGard that someone had twice hacked into a financial database that contained confidential information on their clients. The hacker tried to extort the corporation by threatening to disclose the information to the clients. The FBI is investigating the case.
InfraGard member Mike McKenzie, vice president of regional security for the Twin Cities branch of Wells Fargo Bank, said the membership has already paid off.
"What has happened is that by being involved with the FBI directly, we're getting first-hand information as to the types of cases that are occurring and the types of issues we should be looking at," he said.
The FBI hopes the program will get businesses to report cyber-attacks they might have otherwise kept to themselves.
McKenzie predicts that, with companies concerned about trade secrets, that will continue to be a challenge for the bureau. Still, he adds that having a relationship with the FBI might make them less leery of calling a federal agent. "People watch too much TV," he says.
McCabe says tips from chapter members have already led the bureau to open numerous cases.
"Sometimes they just need to know that they can come to us with something," McCabe says. "The message is we're not going to laugh at you."
Patrick Howe may be reached at phowe(at)ap.org.
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