U.S. Air Force personnel work in the Air Force Space Command Network Operations… (Rick Wilking / Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — The military and intelligence services of Russia and China are conducting a sustained campaign to steal American commercial and military secrets through cyber espionage, according to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and he warned that sophisticated computer hacking poses a major danger to U.S. interests.
"Nation states are investing huge amounts of time, personnel and money to steal our data," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Friday in a speech to an association of retired U.S. intelligence officers. "We are not as prepared as we need to be."
Rogers' remarks were framed as a warning against overly steep cuts in the intelligence and defense budgets, and he cited cyber attacks as the top threat to the United States outside of Al Qaeda. He particularly blamed Russia and China.
"Clearly the intelligence agencies and the military [from both countries] are involved," he said afterward.
Rogers' views are widely shared by national security officials, but the allegations are rarely voiced in public. The origins of many cyber attacks are deliberately hidden, and efforts by the Pentagon's National Security Agency to identify the sources rely on classified systems that officials are loath to discuss.
The issue is politically sensitive, and U.S. officials say there is no consensus on how to respond to computer-based attacks that they believe are tied to specific governments.
Evidence of state-sponsored cyber-espionage appears to be growing. A report last week by McAfee Inc., an Internet security firm owned by Intel Corp., described a five-year cyber assault against some 70 U.S. businesses, defense contractors and government agencies.
McAfee called it the work of a nation state but stopped short of accusing China. Other analysts quickly did. China's government has denied the allegations and has consistently denied cyber-spying on the United States, as has Russia. The McAfee report did not name most of the victims nor say what the attack yielded.
In January 2010, Google Inc. said it had been hit by an attack originating in China, and said the cyber-spies had sought to steal emails from Chinese government critics. Google stopped cooperating with Chinese censorship of its search engine and subsequently withdrew from China.
A 2009 report by University of Toronto researchers traced a cyber attack called GhostNet that targeted foreign embassies, government agencies and offices used by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, to Internet addresses on an island in the South China Sea where the People's Liberation Army has an intelligence base.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, who declined to speak publicly about an intelligence matter, said this week that China was deriving "enormous benefit from exploiting" the United States and other industrialized nations through the Internet.
"We are in a place where I think the benefits of cyberspace, which are huge, have been greatly outstripped by the risks of cyberspace," the official said.