ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The hackers who raided the federal government's personnel files got much more than had been previously recorded, much more in terms of both the quantity and the quality of government data. The breach involved more than 14 million former and current federal employees, and according to a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, hackers got not just names and Social Security numbers, but information from security clearance files. Damian Paletta writes about this in The Wall Street Journal. He's national security reporter there and joins us. Welcome to the program.
DAMIAN PALETTA: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
SIEGEL: And let's take that last point first. What have you learned about the kind of information that was compromised here?
PALETTA: Well, I mean, this is much more extensive than even the information you put on a mortgage application. I mean, this is mental health records, police records, alcohol use - that sort of thing. I mean, this is really extensive personal information that the hackers could have obtained on some of the most highly classified individuals in the U.S. government. The repercussions here could be terrible, and the U.S. intelligence and National Security officials now are scrambling to determine what the vulnerabilities could be. Could these - this information be used for blackmail? Could this be used to try to, you know, find a double agent, potentially? I mean, the repercussions here are really bad. And we also don't know how many people they might have obtained records for.
SIEGEL: The terrible irony here is that these are the questions that people are asked when they're applying for security clearances precisely because of the risk that it might expose them to blackmail at some point.
PALETTA: That's exactly right. And these aren't questions that are just asked of the person. These are questions that the people's neighbors are asked. You know, you provide the Social Security information of your wife or husband. I mean, this is information about a whole network of people - spies, lawyers, judges, all sorts of people across the country. And the question is, did they just suck this information out of the U.S. government's network and now it's parked somewhere on a network in China or somewhere else, or did they just sort of pick and choose the records that they wanted? We still don't know the answer to that.
SIEGEL: And the quantity - 14 million either former employees, current employees or people who wanted to be employees at the federal government - that's a lot bigger number than the 4 million the White House acknowledged last week.
PALETTA: That's right. And the fact that this number has more than tripled in a week makes you wonder whether this number's going to change again. So a lot of people, I'm sure, are wondering, how does this affect me? It could be many people, and they might not find out for many weeks.
SIEGEL: Some people are publicly blaming the Chinese for this. The White House isn't. Why not?
PALETTA: No, they're not. And it's not just people, you know, off the record, on background. We've had, you know, senators, even Senator Harry Reid, who has said that he believes this breach came from China. And he's, you know, privy to some of the most top-level intelligence reports on this. So you know, this isn't kind of second-hand information. But the White House has been very careful. They did call out North Korea, as I'm sure you remember, late last year during the Sony hack. That was one of those rare instances where they did identify a country they believed was responsible for a cyber-attack. They're being very careful here. Our relationship with China is very complicated. We do a lot of spying on them. They obviously do a lot of spying on us. And I think, you know, with China denying any involvement in this, either the U.S. government wants to make sure they have it right or they want to be careful so as to determine whether this is going to potentially impact other parts of our relationship with them.
SIEGEL: Damian Paletta, national security reporter of The Wall Street Journal, thanks.
PALETTA: My pleasure. Thank you.
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