U.S. looking at action against China cyberattacks

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is considering more assertive action against Beijing to combat a persistent cyber-espionage campaign it believes Chinese hackers are waging against U.S. companies and government agencies.

As The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that their computer systems had been infiltrated by China-based hackers, cybersecurity experts said the U.S. government is eyeing more pointed diplomatic and trade measures.

Two former U.S. officials said the administration is preparing a new National Intelligence Estimate that, when complete, is expected to detail the cyberthreat, particularly from China, as a growing economic problem. One official said it also will cite more directly a role by the Chinese government in such espionage.

The official said the NIE, an assessment prepared by the National Intelligence Council, will underscore the administration concerns about the threat and put greater weight on plans for more aggressive action against the Chinese government. The official, not authorized to discuss the classified NIE, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with reporters as she wound up her tenure, said the United States needs to send a strong message that it will respond to such incidents.

"We have to begin making it clear to the Chinese -- they're not the only people hacking us, or attempting to hack us -- that the United States is going to have to take action to protect not only our government's [data], but our private sector, from this kind of illegal intrusions.

"There's a lot that we are working on that will be deployed in the event that we don't get some kind of international effort under way," she said. "Obviously, this can become a very unwelcome and even dangerous tit-for-tat that could be a crescendo of consequences, here at home and around the world, that no one wants to see happen."

To date, extensive discussions between Chinese officials and top U.S. leaders, including President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have had little impact on what government and cybersecurity experts say is escalating and technologically evolving espionage. The Chinese deny such espionage efforts.

Internet search leader Google focused attention on the China threat three years ago, by alleging that it had traced a series of hacking attacks to that country. Google said the breaches, which became known as "Operation Aurora," appeared aimed at heisting some of its business secrets as well as spying on Chinese human rights activists who relied on its Gmail service. As many as 20 other U.S. companies also were said to be targeted.

A four-month long cyberattack against The New York Times is the latest in a long string of breaches said to be by China-based hackers into corporate and government computer systems across the United States. The Times attacks, routed through computers at U.S. universities, targeted staff members' email accounts, the Times said, and were likely in retribution for the newspaper's investigation into the wealth amassed by the family of a top Chinese leader. The Wall Street Journal on Thursday said its computer systems, too, had been breached by China-based hackers in a bid to monitor the paper's coverage of China issues.

Media organizations with bureaus in China have believed for years that their computers, phones and conversations were likely monitored on a fairly regular basis by the Chinese. The Gmail account of an Associated Press staffer was broken into in China in 2010.

Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Mandiant, the firm hired by the Times to investigate the cyberattack, said the breach is consistent with what he routinely sees China-based hacking groups do. But he said it had a personal aspect to it that became apparent: The hackers got into 53 computers but largely looked at the emails of the reporters working on a particular story. The newspaper's investigation delved into how the relatives and family of Premier Wen Jiabao built a fortune worth more than $2 billion.

The Chinese foreign and defense ministries called the Times' allegations baseless, and the Defense Ministry denied any involvement by the military. "Chinese law forbids hacking and any other actions that damage Internet security," the Defense Ministry said. "The Chinese military has never supported any hacking activities. ... To accuse the Chinese military of launching cyberattacks without firm evidence is not professional and also groundless."

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