In Data Breach, Reluctance To Point The Finger At China : Parallels Personal data of at least 18 million federal workers may have been accessed via the OPM computer system. Some officials quietly blame China; others want to avoid upsetting this major trade partner.
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In Data Breach, Reluctance To Point The Finger At China

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In Data Breach, Reluctance To Point The Finger At China

In Data Breach, Reluctance To Point The Finger At China

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Several weeks have gone by since the Office of Personnel Management revealed it had been hacked. Federal law enforcement sources say the personal information of more than 18 million people may have been compromised. China is the prime suspect in the hack, and yet U.S. officials remain reluctant to say so publicly. NPR's David Welna looks at why.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: If any American officials should know which country perpetrated the OPM's massive data breach, it would likely be Admiral Michael Rogers. He not only directs the National Security Agency, he also heads the U.S. Cyber Command. But if Rogers knows, he's not saying.

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MICHAEL ROGERS: I'm not going to get into the specifics of attribution. That's a process that we're working through on the policy side.

WELNA: Last week during an appearance at a spy satellite symposium, Rogers declined to blame China for the OPM hack. The most he would say was this...

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ROGERS: There's a wide range of people, groups and nation states out there aggressively attempting to gain access to that data.

WELNA: And while California Congressman Adam Schiff is outspoken on many other sensitive issues, the House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat would not name China when asked in an interview which country is behind the data breach.

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ADAM SCHIFF: I think we have a pretty good case as to who's responsible, but it really is up to the administration to decide whether they want to publicly attribute the attack.

WELNA: Some China experts say assigning blame in this case can be tricky because cyberspying there is often outsourced to non-government contractors.

DAN ALTMAN: It's hard to sort of pin down who you should be blaming, and if you leave all of the blame at Beijing's door step, is that really the right place?

WELNA: That's Dan Altman, a China-watcher at New York University's Stern School of Business, as well as economics editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Altman says beyond uncertainty, there's a hard, cold reality - China is still the United States' second-largest trade partner.

ALTMAN: This might not be the best time to try and get into the blame game with Beijing because you want to engage them in that economic relationship. And that's always been the reason for reticence, in terms of the United States pushing back at China not just over cybersecurity, but over things like civil rights and human rights, as well.

WELNA: Not surprisingly, China denies any responsibility for the OPM hack. Here's Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaking to a group of foreign journalists last month through an interpreter.

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WANG YI: (Through interpreter) The Chinese government opposes any hacking activities or the theft of commercial secrets, and this is the set policy of the Chinese government, and we have very strict regulations.

WELNA: On the other hand, Wang said, 80 percent of the Chinese government's websites have been hacked, and most of those of cyberattacks, he claimed, have come from the U.S.

But just as China is willing to point a finger, so are some American officials. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the same spy satellite symposium last week that China is in his words the leading suspect in the OPM hack.

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JAMES CLAPPER: Please don't take this the wrong way. You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. You know, if we had the opportunity to do that, I don't think we'd hesitate for a minute.

COLIN CLARK: Clapper's saying clearly here, A, I really do want to go after them, and B, it's really complicated.

WELNA: So says Colin Clark. He's editor of the online publication Breaking Defense. Washington, he says, may be nettled, but it does not want to get into a dogfight with Beijing.

CLARK: If you're simply engaging in counter-espionage, you're OK. But, you know, where does counter-espionage begin and end, and where does war fighting begin?

WELNA: And with Chinese President Xi Jinping set to make his first state visit to the White House in September, the muted official response to the OPM hack looks bound to continue. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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