October 11, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The evening of Sept. 19, netheads signing on to the CIA website really got spooked. ”Welcome to the Central Stupidity Agency,” read the altered banner, the work of Swedish hackers angered by the prosecution of some of their own back home. By exploiting a loophole in the host program, the hackers broke through security; ferreting into the server software, they modified its files. Besides links to pictures of naked women, there was an icon for ”Other Intelligence Community Links” that led to a photo of Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis, while clicking on ”About the CIA” loosed a flood of Swedish invective. (In response, the agency temporarily closed the site and created a task force on preventing future invasions.)

Of course, McLean, Va. — the home of the CIA — is thousands of miles away from Stockholm, but cyberspace is international. And any techno-tuned prankster with a modem, a scanner, and a little imagination can take on the biggest players. In the spirit of stuntdom, here are our awards for the most outrageous pranks — so far.

The ”Medium Is the Presage” Award goes to the digital poltergeists who cracked the Justice Department’s website in August. ”This World Wide Web server is currently under destruction,” read an amended blurb. Visitors found swastikas, a doctored photo showing a topless Jennifer Aniston, criticisms of the Communications Decency Act, and a pitch for a page called hillaryshair.com.

The ”Dewey Defeats Truman” Award goes to the employee of Time Warner’s Pathfinder who at about 1 p.m. EST on Oct. 3, 1995, apparently entered a parallel dimension. Guilty! screamed the headlines on the Pathfinder Web site. O.J. Simpson is convicted of murder. Within minutes Pathfinder had corrected the error — but not before surfers had downloaded the original headline and wallpapered the Net with it.

The ”Love Is All You Need” Award goes to L.A. private investigator Tom Grant for providing cyber-life support for the question, Who killed Kurt Cobain? Grant’s response, a 105-page rant, is to blame someone other than the rocker himself. One hint: Courtney Love’s name appears over 280 times. Surely there’s a better way to get her attention?

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