US Officials say China stole State emails revelation comes two weeks after reports suggest British police busted a Chinese spy ring Beijing denies allegations
Tens of thousands of messages were stolen from the US State Department in a major cyber attack earlier this summer, a Senate staffer told Politico. The hack was said to have targeted the US commerce chief and Washington’s top diplomat in China, Ambassador Nicholas Burns.
State Department officials offered new details on the breach during a closed-door briefing on Wednesday, saying that most of the ten government email accounts affected were owned by people working on “Indo-Pacific diplomatic efforts,”Politico reported, citing an unnamed staffer for Republican Senator Eric Schmitt.
“Among the most sensitive information stolen, the staffer said, were victims’ travel itineraries and diplomatic deliberations,” the outlet added, noting that ten Social Security numbers were potentially accessed during the hack.
The cyber attack was first reported in July by Microsoft, which pinned the blame on a “China-based threat actor”allegedly supported by the government in Beijing. In a blog post published at the time, the company also said the hackers had “espionage objectives,” but stated its conclusions were held with only “moderate confidence.”
A total of 25 entities were said to have been targeted in the June hack, among them the State Department and other government agencies. Hundreds of thousands of documents may have been involved in the breach, including around 60,000 from the State Department alone, the staffer said.
The highest-level officials reportedly targeted in the hack include US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Though the State Department has yet to formally implicate China in the breach, Raimondo herself has alleged Chinese responsibility in public comments.
“They did hack me, which was unappreciated to say the least,” she told NBC News earlier this month, adding that she raised the issue with her counterparts in Beijing during her last visit.
The commerce chief went on to argue that Washington is in “fierce competition with China at every level,” but insisted that “conflict is in no one’s interest,” echoing similar comments from other officials regarding US policy on China. President Joe Biden has repeatedly labeled Beijing as America’s top “competitor” and continues to bolster the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific in an effort to confront the People’s Republic.
Two weeks ago former leaders of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party called on Monday for a tougher stance on China, after revelations that a Parliament staffer was arrested for possible espionage months ago.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told the House of Commons that it was “appalling news” that a Chinese spy cell might be operating in London, while former PM Liz Truss urged the government “to recognize that China is the largest threat both to the world and to the UK freedom and democracy.”
China hawks such as Smith and Truss have urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to declare China a “threat,” which would put anyone working “at the direction” of Beijing or in a state-linked company under the heightened scrutiny of security services.
Reducing the UK’s China policy “just to one word” would be wrong, Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, told AP. “We need to take the opportunity to engage with China, not to just shout from the sidelines,” Blain said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously told his Chinese counterpart that Washington would “take appropriate action” in response to any state-sponsored hacks, though he did not specify what that would entail.
However, the Chinese pushed back the allegations saying that the alleged spy activity by China in the UK is “non-existent” and that Britain should “stop spreading false information and stop its anti-China political manipulation and malicious smear.” While rejecting the US allegations as another case of “disinformation,” having dismissed similar hacking claims in the past.