'Powerful tradecraft': how foreign cyber-spies compromised America
By Christopher Bing, Joseph Menn, Raphael Satter and Jack Stubbs
(Reuters) - At a private dinner for tech security executives at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco in late February, the American cyber defense chief bragged about how well his organizations protect the country from spies.
US teams "understood the enemy better than the enemy understands himself," said General Paul Nakasone, chief of the National Security Agency (NSA) and US Cyber Command, according to a Reuters reporter at dinner on February 26th was present. His speech has not yet been reported.
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But while he was speaking, hackers embedded malicious code on the network of a Texas software company called SolarWinds Corp. This comes from a schedule published by Microsoft and more than a dozen government and corporate cyber researchers.
A little over three weeks after that dinner, the hackers began a large-scale intelligence operation that has penetrated the heart of the American government and numerous corporations and other institutions around the world.
The results of that operation became known on December 13 when Reuters reported that suspected Russian hackers had gained access to U.S. Treasury Department emails. Since then, officials and researchers have believed that at least half a dozen US government agencies have been infiltrated and thousands of companies have been infected with malware in what appears to be one of the biggest hacks of its kind ever uncovered.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that Russia was behind the attack, calling it "a serious risk" for the United States. Russia has refused to participate.
The revelations of the attack come at a vulnerable time as the US government grapples with a controversial presidential transition and a deepening public health crisis. And it reflects a new level of sophistication and scale that hits numerous federal agencies and threatens to do far more damage to public confidence in American cybersecurity infrastructure than previous acts of digital espionage.
Much remains unknown - including the motive or ultimate goal.
Seven government officials have told Reuters that they are largely in the dark about what information may have been stolen or tampered with - or what it would take to reverse the damage. The last known breach of US federal systems by alleged Russian intelligence agencies - when hackers gained access to unclassified email systems in the White House, State Department and joint chiefs of staff in 2014 and 2015 - took years to break up .
US President Donald Trump on Saturday downplayed the hack and Russian involvement, claiming it was "under control" and that China could be responsible. He accused "Fake News Media" of exaggerating its dimensions.
However, the NSC admitted that a "major cyber incident" had occurred. "There will be an appropriate response to the actors behind this behavior," said NSC spokesman John Ullyot. He didn't respond to a question about whether Trump had evidence of China's involvement in the attack.
Several government agencies, including the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, have provided technical advice on this situation. Nakasone and the NSA declined to comment on the story.
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