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STUTTGART, Germany — Some may take it as a challenge.

During the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, computer hackers tried but failed — at least as far as anyone knows — to disrupt U.S. military communication systems.

“We knew it was going to happen,” said Ray A. Letteer, the U.S. Marine Corps’ senior information assurance manager, “and we stopped them cold.”

Information assurance was the subject of a three-day meeting that ended Thursday in Stuttgart. The U.S. European Command, the conference host, brought in some of the military’s best computer watchdogs to address issues such as network security and user access.

“There is no break period for [those people] protecting and defending information networks,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry D. Raduege Jr., who heads the Defense Information Systems Agency. “You don’t take a day off.”

About 140 people attended the second annual conference, which focused on transformation, operational and security integration, and coalition interoperability.

In short, these are the people responsible for keeping computer hackers at bay while ensuring customers, such as a battlefield commander, can access and pass along information without fear of it being compromised.

And all of their efforts are occurring at a time when the technology is continuing to advance by leaps and bounds.

In the near future, computers “will be moving at speeds that no one ever thought possible three or four years ago,” said Bob Lentz, director of information assurance for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration.

Essentially, the field that Lentz now surveys didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Back then, communications security centered on cryptography and making sure phone lines were as secure as possible. The profession started to evolve in the waning days of the Cold War with the growth of computer networks, but it didn’t take off until the Internet boom of the mid-1990s, said Lentz, who heads DOD’s information assurance program.

Over the last several years — and especially during the millennium — the government as well as private industry have spent billions of dollars safeguarding computer networks. The Defense Department now budgets about $2.4 billion a year for information assurance, said Air Force Col. Thomas J. Verbeck, who is the director of the U.S. European Command’s computer and communication division and has been selected for brigadier general.

Overall, the Defense Department is looking to spend about $28 billion next year on information technology, from phone lines to video-conferencing links.

“We didn’t spend this kind of time protecting it in the past,” Verbeck said.

But protecting the integrity of command and control systems, he added, is an “absolutely critical piece of the war fighter’s success, absolutely critical.”

Raduege was the featured speaker at Tuesday’s luncheon. He spoke of the Bush administration’s interest in computer technology, especially during the war when the president held video-conferencing calls with commanders thousands of miles away.

In the coming year, EUCOM has identified three areas of focus: quality assurance, increased bandwidth and improved communication capabilities with Russia.

The ultimate goal, Raduege said, is reaching a state of what he calls “knowledge centric.” That means giving U.S. and allied commanders the ability to instantaneously access information “anywhere, anytime.”

For Letteer, the job of ensuring that information is passed as reliably and quickly as possible to troops at the front has taken on greater meaning now that his 25-year-old son, Aaron, a Marine reservist, is in northern Kuwait.

What he does, Letteer said, directly helps his son because the more credible access to information becomes, the better for his unit and, ultimately, him.

The war, Letteer said, is not some “nameless” affair to this father.

“Sometimes we focus on the box,” Letteer said at the conference during a presentation, “and not on the people.... Let’s face it: the warfighter is our customer.”

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