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Fmr. CIA official: Cyber war ‘more sinister than nuclear age’

February 19th, 2013
05:31 PM ET

U.S. cyber battle with China

Former CIA official on cyber attack

By Mick Krever, CNN

The U.S. believes that cyber warfare could begin to threaten the underpinnings of its relationship with China, New York Times journalist David Sanger told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.

Sanger and two colleagues reported in the New York Times on Tuesday that a secretive unit of the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military, is responsible for most of the many Chinese cyber attacks on U.S. corporations and infrastructure.

“This is, diplomatically, I think one of the most complicated problems out there,” Sanger said. “The fact that your adversary would know that you could get into their systems and turn them on or off at any time – whether it was cell phones or air traffic control or whatever – might well affect your future behavior. So it doesn’t mean that they’re going to do it, or there’s out-and-out war, but it does mean that they have a capability to do this by remote control.” The New York Times reported last month that the newspaper was the victim of Chinese hackers – brought on, they believe, by a report on the finances of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

An internet security firm hired by the paper to investigate that attack has released a new report on Chinese hacking, and that report alleges the deep involvement of the Chinese military.

In fact, the security company, Mandiant, says that the attacks originate from a single 12-story building on the outskirts of Shanghai.

“It’s got thousands of people working in it,” Sanger said. His colleague, David Barboza visited the site, but was not allowed inside.

The Chinese government hotly denies all the allegations in the Mandiant report, calling them “baseless,” “irresponsible and unprofessional.”

“If it’s not coming from this building,” Sanger said, “then you’ve got to believe it’s coming from the noodle shops and restaurants that surround this building.”

Chad Sweet, a former CIA and Homeland Security official who now runs his own global security firm, said that the standoff between the U.S. and China envisages a bleak future.

“We’re essentially facing a new Cold War – a cyber Cold War,” he told Amanpour. “The destructive capacity is equal to that of a nuclear warhead… But what makes it more sinister than the nuclear age is that there’s no easily identifiable plume.”

In other words, it is very difficult to attribute a cyber attack to a source or exact retribution.

“The old ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ doctrine,” he said, “is quite difficult to implement in the modern age.”

Sweet said that he did not believe China would “pull the trigger” unless its “back was up against the wall” – for example if the U.S. threatened China’s claim over Taiwan.

But just as in the Cold War, both sides are quickly building up capacity.

“On this, American hands are not clean,” Sanger said. “That is how the U.S. got into the Iranian nuclear program.”

He is referring to the Stuxnet computer virus that the U.S. launched at Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, a story he broke last year.

Sweet claimed that the Chinese and American attacks are fundamentally different, because China allegedly targets civilian infrastructure, while the U.S. targets military installations.

Because of the nature of these programs, it is impossible to verify the extent or intent of either the U.S. or China’s cyber warfare or capability.

Sanger said that during his reporting on the Stuxnet virus, he learned of a prescient Situation Room meeting early in the Obama administration.

“President Obama said to some of his aides in the Situation Room several years ago,” Sanger recounted, “that he was worried that once the U.S. went down this road, other countries might use it as a pretense to launch their own attacks, presumably not with the discipline and the rules the U.S. has. Well I think that’s probably pretty much exactly what’s happened.”

READ MORE: Have the courage to deal with cyber war

Filed under:  Cyber Crime • Latest Episode
soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. electricretard

    This is a good scoop Christiane, keep following this story.

    February 19, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      China has been positioning itself for many years. It owns a major part of our national debt thus making political relationships somewhat awkward. Read the action novel ebook, "China Express". although fiction, it is based on tday's realities. Great Report, I agree.

      February 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  2. Pablo zepata

    Discipline and rules the US has? What is that guy smoking. The US can sure dish it out, but when it comes back, what a bunch of babies.

    February 19, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  3. Hillary Szydlowski

    Private companies are hacking on far greater scale,

    February 19, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  4. Luigi

    The Chinese gov't better watch out. It could be setting itself up for a disaster. Ever hear of a double agent?

    February 19, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  5. Jack29

    One thing's for certain; no matter how bad it gets, nothing will be done to interfere with the outsourcing of jobs to China's fixed currency market for low-wage quasi-slave labor. The US ownership class has made a killing from it, and has the republican Party to keep that process in place, regardless of what is done to our Country in the process. The punchline to the big joke comes when that very same US ownership class also gets utterly dumped by China. Every day, it gets closer across each industry.

    What was that old Lenin quote? – "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them"...a sad truth, that the Chinese authoritarian Communist Government has taken to heart, exploits every day, and is laughing all the way to the bank because of. Too bad the US has not the sense to see it.

    February 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • Ann

      No 1. US is spying on china always.
      No 2. US takes china as threat= look down on yourself!
      China GDP is close to US every year, but what average GDP?
      China only has 1 shanghai, other areas has 20~50years distance to US.
      US has the advanced techniques, what about china?
      Do you know how many chinese like to studay or emigrate to states?
      You, American or american media takes us as threat, means shortage of self-confidence.

      February 20, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  6. J.R. King

    The Chinese government always hotly deny everything. And they are an enemy to the United States. They only "sin" in China is getting caught.

    February 19, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • CentralParkTarzan

      ...the people who catch us...are smarter...they dont cry bloody murder on every little shiest!

      February 19, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  7. rory

    I just wonder what the US got out of this kind of propaganda war.Grow up and make up your mind,either live in peace with cooperation or go to war right now and lost half of the population on earth

    February 19, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  8. matt b

    Just think of all those Huwaei servers in that building ... oh and all the others in the US!

    February 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  9. CentralParkTarzan

    ...any long we've been at it...?

    February 19, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  10. sagala

    Double dealer

    February 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  11. AlexTheGreat

    This is another one of those propaganda campaigns by our US government via news media or individuals on Weapons of Mass Deception. DOD has already lost 2 wars: Iraq and Afghanistan and our Treasury is printing more paper money to pay our daily bills like the Police, Firemen and teachers,etc.

    CIA has the best Counter-Cyber technology in the world, China is nothing compared to our highly sophisticated system. Everybody is wasting his or her time complaining or B.S... No more Trillion dollars on Wars with ... what ever country that does not agree with US A. Please stop this BS posting and debates.

    February 19, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  12. SongOfRoland

    CNN is one big scam, cowards to show my posts and cowards to stand up to the elites because they are ruled by them, too bad you once had a good name for yourselves, but know you just a Drama show and we just waiting for the next episode... Too bad. Media was the back bone to America's success, Today they are the footprint of another feather...Traitors.

    February 19, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  13. Lorenzo

    HELP me SAY my VOICE ......Dear Ambassadors , my name is Lorenzo Franzina , I move to United State legal with Visa H1B specialty Occupations in 1999 I work for a New York Company from Rochester NY the Company was JK Jewelry, in 2003 I have appoint ment in Siracuse for take my Fingher print ,after 6 years work I move to California , and after find and have all the time in USA a ligal work pay my tax, and have my regolary Employment Card , on September 2007 I open with my AMERICAN friend at small winery in Rancho Cucamonga, and now my ex friend he theft from me, and give my name Franzinacellars to one other winery FRANZIA ,on January 2 2009 I have mail letter they denay my Green Card I ask to go at Immigrations Court in Los Angeles, and after almost an year that jugge give me time , in November he ask what I want to do, and I SAY IM ask for Volunter Departure , the Jugge he give me to leave the Country until March 31 2011 , wel for no take avvantage I left on Dicember 2010 , what I left behind ? Everything I care the most in the time I live in California I met the most beautiful and afecctioned woman will still togheter almost more then 2 years,after what we going trhu , she make me crazy in love and even her daughter she 7 year old that I love like she my onw daughter, we did all thogeter everything, but when I ask to Volunter Departure I keep coming back and fort to Italy and USA with the ESTA because I NEVER BE DEPORTED, NEVER , and in April I come and stay, I confuse my day july 29 ,with june and I left to Tjuana Mexico for not have truble with the USA, and he was fine, but in July I take Carnival Cruisess to Ensenada 3 day me and my Fiance, for make a new entry, but in mexico no one stamp my Passport , we got back to Long beach and the immigrations they traumatized me and my Fiance, they deported me and say that am able to come back in the State againe a soon am to the USA Embassy in Italy, wel I spend soo much money that am going for 5 time, one in Rome , and for 4 time in Milan Italy, well the all time they say they dont give me a VISA because I dont have history in my Country Itali, but the last time in Milan in an Holiday day , I have appointment and they say that I cant come any more in USA because I live illegal , all my world collapsed , my small winery that I open, for me and for the future of my fiance, everything , now is the sad part, my Fiance she dosent eat any more, we leave togheter she whait 115 pound now she 90 , am worry she got a 7 years old daugter , even my self am not eat, we no sleep, and all we want is to be all togheter , right now am in Costarica for almost 7 monht am an Italian resident in Golfito I have my small restaurant, but I need her, we want to be againe thogeter and can never let go us,is almost one years that we are separate ,I want to ask something ? Are you never in your life you feel deep in love ? that you can never live , or whant to do anything ? Or you can give your own life ? Well am 48 years old right now and believe me , is beautiful feeling, and betwin us , am no boddy, you have the power to make us happy againe and you know to the is not investigations or no one can put in Jopardy even your job , you have the power to make us togheter againe , and I have the responsability to fix my status , I believe in God, somewhere same how is there, and I believe in Miracle, well right now you are my only Miracle please, help me , please help me !!!! Now am homeless and I lost for all this situations everything, my fiance to what I have to Do ?????????????
    Lorenzo Franzina
    Cell-Phone : 85945036

    February 19, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  14. raj

    cyber war and crimes can create havoc to any individual the ease by which your transfer money across your account can be forged and money can be swindled military secrets on designated secured servers can be hacked and compromised its upto the individual to play safe and countries to be more secured than the foriegn hackers and the local hackers too one always have the good and bad over the centuries its a ever evolving specturm when one try to keep safe and secure other try to hack and crack some do for fun some are serious on the crimes....

    February 20, 2013 at 2:43 am | Reply
  15. Josh Bobster

    This whole thing is getting our of hand. First, the NY Times, generally a great newspaper, felt it had the moral authority to publicize information it knew would humiliate the leader of China. Whether it should have done that piece is debatable but I think it was stupid since losing face in China is the worst possible insult. The US is falling apart; there are so many pressing issues at home, why not cover them instead of butting in to the affairs of a nation on the other side of the planet?

    Shortly upon humiliating China's leader, the NY Times' China operations were, not surprisingly, shut down. Not long thereafter, the Times says its website was hacked, and they suspected China. Then it hired experts who also pointed a finger at China. Angry that their China operations were closed and upset hackers entered their site, the Times published a major article which went far beyond reporting the fact that China might have snooped around. Their aim was to paint a picture of China as an enemy and a serious threat to American security.

    Terror experts were interviewed on CNN calling China's hacking capabilities worse than the threat of nuclear war. Nonsense.First, it's possible China was not behind the hacking incident. Second, even if it were, they didn't shut down the Times - which they surely had the capability to do - or steal vital data. They might have snooped, which is indeed reprehensible, but that's about it. They didn't threaten to knock out power grids or shut down oil pipelines or interfere with aviation systems. Yet everyone in America, thanks to the Times, now regards China as an enemy whose aim is to wreak havoc on the US and perhaps try to take it over.

    Worse than nuclear war? Give me a break.

    February 20, 2013 at 4:54 am | Reply
  16. Raphael

    This is nothing new. Computer hacking is started by the CIA intelligence services years ago. If the Americans want to punish China as recommended by Hilary Clinton, then be prepare to face a war with China. The Chinese is fed up with the western hippocrisy and double standard in their news reporting and playing the angelic role in the process. Then make the first step to neutralise China. May the best man wins in the event of a war broke between US and China.

    February 20, 2013 at 6:31 am | Reply
  17. spacecalculus

    Instrument, music, player...

    February 20, 2013 at 7:46 am | Reply
  18. Matt

    >>Sweet claimed that the Chinese and American attacks are fundamentally different, because China allegedly targets civilian infrastructure, while the U.S. targets military installations.

    Well, based on UN reports, that claim is nonsense: even according to the last UN report on Iran (December 2012), there are no signs that Iran has a military nuclear program. Consequently, Stuxnet _DID_ attack civilian infrastructure.

    February 20, 2013 at 8:21 am | Reply
  19. BabitaSharma

    Why doesn't America provide empirical evidence to support its claim. I think the presumptuous Americans are obsessed with the disciplined Chinese might....

    February 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  20. Jason

    continue to make up, pathetic americans. seek for one excuse to attack china like you did to irak and afghanistan? good luck with your nonsense

    February 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  21. Lucas

    US has been spying on Iraq and Israel since internet existed. Do not blame anyone for using your own poison tecniques(and I must say Chinese does it better).

    February 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  22. interd0g

    Rubbish. . A plan which may have resulted in the physical destruction or mutilation of all life on Earth was more sinister.
    This assertion is a long reach simply to create hysteria in the ignorant or unbalanced.

    February 20, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  23. Tate

    This is so stupid. It's the CNN can find the headquarter for the Chinese Hacking Center, then it's not even a secret.
    Also shame on the USA CIA or military agencies. You have dozens of satellites hanging in the space above China for 20 years and you couldn't even figure out how to deal with it?

    February 21, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  24. Jason

    Welcome to china!

    February 22, 2013 at 8:51 am | Reply
  25. HI

    The 50 cent army flooding every China-related comment threat gives us a hint of how China views debate.

    February 24, 2013 at 8:59 am | Reply
  26. george argiriou

    if i could fix the broken artery of my tool i would now be with Sofia.

    February 25, 2013 at 5:54 am | Reply
  27. magic

    Gorgeous essay, acquired the satisfaction of studying magic

    March 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  28. eyeonukraine

    Uh, who will be indicted by the Attorney General at that N something agency? Or it is OK for one to hack, spy, listen in on other countries' email, phone, etc., but just not OK for others to listen in? hmmm, some moral high ground here. Oh well,

    May 20, 2014 at 1:43 am | Reply
  29. Cruising56

    America & China jointly benefit from their trade, but the relationship does not extend beyond the financial benefits. The anti sentiments flows in both directions, but l tend to find greater anti-amarican sentiment from the Chinese, particularly from their spin doctors, security personnel & hackers. This is a very strong love/hate relationship at best.

    May 20, 2014 at 3:08 am | Reply
  30. Andrew Van Es

    I think this topic is a lot more than just about hacking.

    American corporations are quickly being eroded by Chinese counterfeiting of American technology and products.

    Its time Mr. President to bring some of our largest companies back home to provide jobs for your citizens.

    Get strong again America and be a little more respected worlwide.

    Other than that be prepared to tackle the problem head on and that means meeting them diplomatically or militarily then so be it.

    May 20, 2014 at 7:52 am | Reply
  31. Ellena Longerbeam

    I am really loving the theme/design of your blog. Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility problems? A couple of my blog audience have complained about my website not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Safari. Do you have any solutions to help fix this issue?

    April 8, 2019 at 8:02 am | Reply

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