Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House of Representatives homeland security committee, on Sunday said he believed China was responsible for the recent hacking of personal data of 4 million federal employees.
“This was the most significant breach of federal networks in US history,” said McCaul, a Texas Republican. “And that’s very significant. We look at the threat indicators and ask who has the motive to steal this data in a huge data-mining project that targeted political appointees in the federal government and federal employees.
“Now, in my judgment this was an attack by China against the United States government. It quantifies to espionage. And that raises all sorts of issues that we need to deal with.”
The hack, which was revealed this week, affected the federal Office of Personnel Management and the Interior Department. The OPM is responsible for most federal security clearances.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, was less quick to apportion blame during an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
“It’s very valuable information,” said the California representative, “and while we’re not allowed to comment on the attribution yet, we’ve gotten very good at attribution.
“And there are only two possibilities here with an attack this sophisticated – either a state actor or a group of private hackers who often work in concert with the state.”
When the hack was revealed, the New York Times and Washington Post both reported that Chinese hackers were to blame. So did Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who sits on the Senate intelligence committee.
On Thursday, the Chinese embassy in Washington deflected questions on the matter, saying jumping to conclusions was “not responsible” and “counterproductive”.
On Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: “When it comes to China, you all know that the president has frequently, including in every single meeting that he’s conducted with the current Chinese president, raised China’s activities in cyberspace as a significant source of concern.”
In April, Obama responded to increasing attacks by launching a sanctions programme to target individuals and groups outside the US. The move followed indictments of five Chinese military officers on charges of economic espionage. The US officials has also blamed North Korea for a high-profile attack on Sony.
McCaul, who was appearing on CBS, was asked if the hack could have been carried out by the Chinese state or by “private” hackers working for it.
“All the threat indicators point to the fact that it is China, perhaps nation-state sponsored, because of the way it was done,” he said.
“It was not done to steal credit card information. It was done to get personal information of political appointees in the federal government and federal employees, to exploit them so that later, down the road, they can use it for espionage, to either recruit spies or compromise individuals in the federal government.”
Asked about possible US retaliation, McCaul said: “This is an area where there are no rules of the game, in terms of espionage and in terms of stealing information.”
On Fox, Schiff said: “One of the things we really have to do, in addition to the defence, is figure out when we are going to go on offence, and how we’re going to provide a deterrent to future attacks.”
This article was written by Martin Pengelly in New York, for theguardian.com on Sunday 7th June 2015 17.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010