CNN reported Wednesday that a U.S. official has confirmed that “the United States is pulling spies from China as a result of the cyberattack that compromised the personal data of 21.5 million government workers.”
“Because the stolen data includes records on State Department employees, the hackers could, by process of elimination, identify embassy personnel who are actually intelligence agents,” CNN points out, adding that a major concern is that “Chinese intelligence could use the OPM data to help determine the identities of future U.S. intelligence employees that may try to enter China.”
The massive Chinese raid on sensitive personnel data at the Office of Personnel Management is usually discussed in terms of the risk and inconvenience to the individuals involved, as when the administration offered them identity theft insurance. Those risks are certainly significant, given the millions of current and former government employees and contractors involved, and the enormous costs incurred as a result, but the more severe and lasting threat has always been the damage to U.S. intelligence operations.
In fact, there have been reports China is using intelligence from the hack to identify U.S. workers that may enter the country, in concert with Russian intelligence. They have been putting together a massive cross-linked database that can discover patterns of information suggesting the presence of intelligence assets—linking travel data, expenses, and activity in government computer systems, for example. Conversely, there has been little or no evidence of conventional identity theft in the wake of the OPM hack.
CNN notes that Republican Senators asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper why the administration has not “responded more firmly to the attack.” Clapper responded by claiming the United States is conducting similar operations against China, and “we’re not bad at it.”
There is no evidence the U.S. has been able to pull off anything remotely comparable to the OPM hack, or the purge of foreign intelligence assets China is currently conducting.
As to the administration’s response, there has not been a response to speak of at all. President Obama blustered in vague terms about how China will eventually face some sort of consequences if they don’t curtail their cyber-espionage efforts.
In fact, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Washington last week, Obama said almost the same thing Clapper did—he threatened U.S. action against cyber-criminals “either retrospectively or proactively” and boasted that American military and intelligence hackers were good at their jobs. He did not pressure Xi into contradicting the Chinese narrative that they hate cyber-espionage more than anyone and wish the Americans would cease their provocative language and work with China to police the Internet.
Cyber Pearl Harbor has already happened, and all that remains is to conduct a damage assessment. The folding of intelligence assets described by CNN supports fears that it will take many years for our intelligence operations to recover from the OPM hack, if recovery is possible at all.