‘Computerworld’ Duped by Hoax Web Site

By: Jim Krane, AP Technology Writer

(AP) In a bizarre case of one journalist deceiving another, an Internet news site published — then embarrassingly retracted — a story that claimed a radical Islamic group was behind a virus-like attack that clogged the Internet.

The Web site of Computerworld magazine published on Wednesday an article by journalist Dan Verton that he based on an e-mail interview with a person he identified as “Abu Mujahid,” a member of Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Mujahadeen.

Verton wrote that Mujahid claimed the group, believed linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, had unleashed the destructive Jan. 25 Internet worm attack.

A four-year staff writer for Computerworld and a former Marine intelligence analyst, Verton thought he had a scoop and wrote a splashy story that said Harkat had acknowledged releasing “the Slammer worm as part of a ‘cyber jihad’ aimed at creating fear and uncertainty on the Internet.”

But Mujahid was really Brian McWilliams, 43, a free-lance journalist in Durham, N.H., whose employers include Salon.com and Wired News. McWilliams said he had duped Verton because he wanted to teach reporters “to be more skeptical of people who claim they’re involved in cyberterrorism.”

Experts have been unable to trace the origin of the so-called Slammer worm and say they have no evidence terrorism was involved.

McWilliams’ online journalism methods created the climate for deception. He said he registered the Internet domain name harkatulmujahideen.org — one transliteration of the group’s name — for use as a “honeypot” to attract correspondence from Muslim radicals, planning to use messages received as story fodder.

Traditional journalism ethics dictate that reporters don’t misrepresent their identities. McWilliams defended the technique, saying it was “in the grand tradition of undercover reporting.”

About three hours after Verton’s story appeared on Wednesday evening, Computerworld removed it from the Web site and replaced it with a disclaimer saying it was taken down “due to questions about its authenticity,” Editor-in-Chief Maryfran Johnson said.

The story had also been advertised to 200,000 recipients of Computerworld‘s daily e-mail, Johnson said. Computerworld is a trade magazine based in Framingham, Mass., and published by International Data Group.

On Thursday, Computerworld published a new story by Verton titled “Journalist perpetrates online terror hoax.”

Verton, who frequently reports on hacking and computer security, said he fell victim to “an elaborate scheme to dupe security companies and journalists.

“I feel like I’ve been had, and that’s never an easy thing to swallow,” Verton wrote. “So, I’m left here scratching fleas as the price you sometimes pay for sleeping with dogs.”

Not only did McWilliams cloak his true identity, but, McWilliams said, he left a mirrored version of the Web site on a server in Pakistan, and even sought to boost its authenticity by defacing it in an effort to make it appear that pro-U.S. hackers had attacked the site.

Verton said the hoax was convincing enough that his calls to the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center turned up no clues as to its inauthenticity.

After the story ran on Wednesday, Johnson said she received a call from a friend who reported that McWilliams was bragging on an e-mail list about having tricked Computerworld. “I couldn’t believe a journalist could do this to another journalist,” Johnson said.

McWilliams said it’s he who is incredulous. He said he had trouble believing Verton and Computerworld would publish such a story without checking the Web site’s registry or his e-mail header information.

Had they done so, they would have learned that Abu Mujahid was in the United States, not Pakistan. McWilliams said he regrets letting the scheme progress to the point of publication. “I wanted to see whether he’d go the extra mile to see who he’s dealing with,” McWilliams said. “I would’ve at least asked for a phone number. He didn’t ask for any sort of corroboration.”

For the magazine’s part, Johnson said the experience was “a real good object lesson” in the risks of e-mail interviews. “We’ve gotten so comfortable with the medium that we forget that,” she said. “Every reporter can learn from things like this.”

McWilliam’s site, http://harkatulmujahideen.org/, now includes his explanation of why he created the hoax.

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