Hackers, who penetrated the 2008 presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Sen. John McCain, were not the work of a dirty tricks brigade, but rather sophisticated computer spies employed by the Chinese government.
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NBC’s “Nightly News” reported the revelation on Thursday’s broadcast, including the fact that the McCain campaign had been “spooked” by a surprising call from a top Chinese diplomat at the time about a letter McCain had written on a campaign computer to the new president of Taiwan.
“The problem was that letter had not yet been delivered,” reported NBC’s Michael Isikoff.
Meanwhile, in Chicago at then Sen. Obama’s campaign headquarters, a “phony” meeting agenda email had been circulated among top campaign staffers with a hidden computer virus.
Obama told reporters at the time: “Hackers gained access to emails and a range of campaign files from policy position papers to travel plans.”
While campaign officials were told that the security breaches originated from a foreign government, NBC reported on Thursday that U.S. intelligence had quickly traced the attacks back to China.
An elite military unit of Chinese hackers based in Shanghai — Unit 61398 of China's People’s Liberation Army — has been implicated in a series of more than 100 successful cyber-attacks against U.S. companies and the government over the past year. The list included The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
A computer security specialist told NBC that the campaign attack was intended to produce information over a sustained period.
“It was really designed to get in and to stay in and to get data and keep getting it,” said Alan Brill, whose firm, Krol Advisory Solutions, was hired by the Obama campaign to investigate the attacks.
“This is political cyber espionage by the Chinese government against the two political parties,” added Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence.
While Chinese officials deny any role in the cyber-attacks, the network reported that the topic is likely to be high on the agenda of President Obama’s visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday in Sunnylands, Calif.
The meeting will take place just one week after a government report revealed that Chinese hackers obtained designs for some of the U.S. military's top weapons.
In a letter to the president this past week, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he wants Obama to warn Xi that Congress is mobilizing to take action, including readying legislation to impose "real costs on China" if hackers take proprietary information from businesses.
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Levin co-authored a bill that would require the president to block imported goods that benefit from stolen American intellectual property or technology.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, has also said that he considers cyber-security to be a central issue for his committee.
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