"Many of our computers were suddenly being hit by some unknown outsider," says Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre.
In a coordinated attack, computers all over the world were being programmed to illegally sign on to the Pentagon network. And, not knowing who was behind it, Hamre alerted the President to a nightmare scenario: Saddam might have launched an electronic sneak attack on defense computers.
"We set up a crisis coordination team here in the Pentagon, and at one point I briefed the President to tell him that it was underway," Hamre says. "We didn't know the origin of the attack at that time, but we told him it was underway and we were taking steps to protect ourselves."
|Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre (CBS)|
"What made this different was the amount of computers they were going after," Massaro says. He adds that he had never seen anything like it.
"They wouldn't go away," he says. "It kept happening and kept happening."
All these machines, Zane adds, the hackers inevitably were able to break into.
The machines were all unclassified. But for a military that uses computers to track every spare part and every soldier being sent to the Persian Gulf, an electronic attack can do more damage than enemy fire.
"If they were able to get into a computer that, for example, affected our schedules for airplanes to take off and what kind of cargo was on board, it could dramatically affect your ability to mobilize," Hamre says.
The FBI was brought in, but it took weeks to trace the attack back to, of all places, the California wine country and two 11th graders.
"It's pretty frustrating that two 16-year-old kids can put us through sucenormous efforts to protect our systems," Hamre says.
They're under investigation and not talking, but another teenager, John Vranesevich, who communicates with hackers over the Internet, interviewed one of them online.
"He says it's power, dude. You know, power. I'm 16 years old sitting in my living room, and I can gain access to hundreds of military computers," Vranesevich says.
If two teenagers in high school can, by the Pentagon's own admission, tie it in knots, what does that say about how vulnerable the U.S. military is to cyber attack?
Two 17-year-olds who are members of a hacker network called the Masters of Downloading say it happens all the time. To them, the California hackers did nothing special.
"The Pentagon gets hacked all the time," one of them says. "It was just a common exploit, you know, anybody could do it. We could show you how to do it in like five minutes, and you could hack a bunch of government stuff."
The formula the California hackers used is still right there on the Internet.
"In about 30 seconds you could come here and download this," the same hacker says.
In the hands of a hacker with evil intent, that could spell disaster.
"He has the power to wipe you out literally in less than 60 seconds," Zane says. "He can issue commands in less than 60 seconds that will leave you with nothing but a blank screen and nothing on your hard drives and nothing in your system. Gone. Smoking ruins."
The Pentagon's anti-hacker squads have become the frontline troops in the information age, searching out the hackers byte by byte, shoring up what has suddenly been exposed as perhaps the weakest link in this country's defenses.
CBS News Correspondent David Martin