On Monday, an unnamed Obama administration official confirmed to Fox News that Chinese hackers had breached computers used by the White House Military Office. Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon was the first to report the cyber intrusion, which occurred sometime last month.
The Military Office is responsible for, among other things, the “football,” the suitcase device that permits the president to transmit commands to the country’s strategic nuclear forces. “This is the most sensitive office in the US government,” a former American intelligence official, speaking to the Free Beacon, said.
The White House has tried to minimize the incident. “This was a spear phishing attack against an unclassified network,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “In this instance the attack was identified, the system was isolated, and there is no indication whatsoever that any exfiltration of data took place.” Yet as Fox reported, “it remains unclear what information, if any, was taken or left behind.” The truth is, at this moment, the White House cannot speak with assurance. For one thing, Beijing’s hackers are extremely skillful at hiding their digital tracks.
The US needs substantially better cyber defenses. China’s military, security ministry, and other government units have conducted a relentless cyber warfare and espionage campaign against American government, military, and business targets as well as against individuals and private organizations.
Yet Chinese capabilities—or even Beijing’s brazenness—are not the fundamental issue. An official said the attack, in Gertz’s words, “highlights a failure of the Obama administration to press China on its persistent cyber attacks.” Officially, the White House would not even confirm the attack came from China.
We of course have the capabilities to know whether an attack originated in China or used that country as a conduit. If either is the case, given the country’s extensive Internet controls, Beijing is responsible.
To its credit, the Obama administration, following the Senate defeat of its Cybersecurity Act of 2012, is contemplating an executive order on this matter. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talked about the matter in public last month.
Those are important steps in the right direction, yet President Obama needs to go to the next level and take a page out of the playbook of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In August 2007, Der Spiegel reported that Chinese hackers had penetrated German networks, including those in the Chancellery and three ministries, and infected them with spyware. That month, Merkel went to Beijing and, standing in public next to Premier Wen Jiabao, criticized his government for its attacks.
If the German chancellor can openly raise the issue in the Chinese capital, why can’t American presidents?