WASHINGTON — Hackers believed to be operating from China have broken into computers in Congress, apparently in search of information on Chinese dissidents, two GOP lawmakers said Wednesday.
The hackers were not identified, but one of the lawmakers, Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, a senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he thought all signs pointed to the Chinese government.
Federal authorities have been increasingly concerned in recent years about the Chinese government's aggressive deployment of scientists, engineers, foreign businessmen, students and others to sweep up U.S. technology and information. Protecting the United States against cyber attacks and high-tech crimes is the FBI's third priority, behind combating terrorism and public corruption.
The extent of the intrusions on Capitol Hill, which officials said began in August 2006, was unclear, although Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), whose office had four computers affected, said that other members of Congress were targeted, as well as at least one congressional committee. "They got everything," Wolf said at a news briefing, describing the attack on his office systems.
Wolf said that after one of the attacks, a car with license plates belonging to Chinese officials went to the home of a Chinese dissident in the Washington suburbs and took photographs of it.
The Chinese government had no immediate comment on the allegations. Wolf said an FBI inquiry confirmed the hacking incidents. The bureau declined to comment.
The hacking report is the latest example of the vulnerabilities of private and public institutions to possible espionage and other crimes. Countries have been using cyber espionage for years to access valuable information in the United States, and China has made no secret of its interest in information warfare.
"Congress would be an attractive target for any spy or hacker, especially if there was information on political dissidents and on U.S. policies," said James A. Lewis, technology program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Lewis said that although China may be a logical suspect, good hackers are adept at hiding their tracks.
"We have a very sophisticated set of opponents. It could be the Chinese. It could be the Russians. It could be somebody else," he said. "This isn't an amateur's game anymore. Particularly when you are talking about an interesting target like a congressman's human rights files, the folks who are going after that are not going to be teenagers in Mendocino."
The departments of State, Defense and Energy have also reported computer break-ins. In another case, U.S. authorities are reportedly investigating whether Chinese officials secretly copied the contents of a government laptop during a trade mission to China in December by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. Beijing has denied involvement.
Wolf and Smith are both outspoken critics of China's human rights record. They said Wednesday that they thought they were targeted because of their views. Wolf has urged President Bush to stay away from the Summer Olympics because of China's human rights record. Smith has introduced legislation that would bar U.S. technology firms from cooperating with countries such as China that ban information about human rights and democracy on the Internet.
Wolf said the computers affected in his office were used by his foreign policy and human rights staffer, his chief of staff, his legislative director and his staff on the House Judiciary Committee. He said he understood that computers used by the House Foreign Affairs Committee had also been hacked. He said that while he had no hard information, he assumed that Senate computers were also invaded.
He indicated during debate on the issue on the House floor Wednesday that the computers of a third member, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), had also been compromised. A spokesman for Kirk could not immediately confirm that.
"The potential for massive and coordinated cyber attacks against the United States is no longer a futuristic problem," Wolf said during the floor debate. "I have experienced this threat firsthand, and I am deeply worried that this institution is not adequately protected."
Smith said the hackers obtained access to e-mail correspondence between his office and human rights groups, the identities of Chinese dissidents and records from more than two dozen congressional hearings on human rights abuses. "This doesn't absolutely prove Beijing was behind the attack. But it raises very serious concern that it was," he said.
Democrats said members of Congress bore some responsibility for the thefts, with some lawmakers having forgotten to update their computers with the latest security software. Others failed to recognize the consequences of visiting certain websites.
"If members are going to access websites in China, you are engaging in risky behavior," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). "You are going to get malware, and you are going to lose your data." Malware is software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system without the owner's consent.
Lofgren said that House information technology experts discovered the infected computers and notified members. She defended their work and said they responded properly.
She described the incident as "a teachable moment" for lawmakers. The intrusions, she said, are "part of the price you pay when you use network computers to visit a potentially dangerous website."