The cyber attack in June that targeted the office of US defence secretary Robert Gates was conducted by the Chinese military, sources in Washington DC have indicated. Senior US officials say there is a "very high level of confidence...trending towards total certainty" within the Pentagon that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) carried out the June attack.
US President George W Bush has acknowledged that the US is vulnerable to cyber-attack. He indirectly indicated that he would raise the issue with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two were to meet in Sydney during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit on Thursday 6 September.
The US president's comments followed a report in London's Financial Times that the Chinese People's Liberation Army had hacked into the Pentagon's computer network. "I'm very aware that a lot of our systems are vulnerable to cyber-attack from a variety of places," said Bush, who was in Sydney for the annual APEC summit. He added that he "may" raise the matter with countries the US suspected of cyber warfare, without acknowledging China's alleged role in the Pentagon incident.
The Pentagon cyber attack was particularly disquieting, apparently, as it involved not just passive snooping, but disruption of networks as well. The FT quoted a former official as saying that: "The PLA has demonstrated the ability to conduct attacks that disable our system." The Pentagon had to close parts of its unclassified computer system in June to deal with the attacks.
The US military warned quite some time ago that the PLA's rising cyber-warfare capability was a cause for concern. It released a report earlier this year that China "is expanding from the traditional land, air, and sea dimensions of the modern battlefield to include space and cyber-space".
This is not the first allegation about the Chinese PLA's cyber snooping and hacking abilities. Earlier, German newspapers reported about of the insertion of spyware, by the PLA, into German government computers at the Chancellery and three ministries.
The British government also seems to have suffered similar attacks. Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, is supposed to have privately told a group of businessmen last year that the UK government had been the target of hacking attacks from China that were suspected to be state sponsored. The Guardian recently reported that parliament and the Foreign Office had been attacked by hackers.
Targets are not limited to governments, but include private companies too. However, some experts point out that while China has come under scrutiny after the PLA hacking allegations, the US has the same capabilities, which it is widely believed to use.
They say the Pentagon is concerned because cyberspace is the one domain where the Chinese can challenge US dominance. China generally lags behind the US in the more conventional spheres of air and sea combat.
Chinese military strategy places increasing emphasis on space and cyberspace as key domains in modern wars, where the information that flows over networks is central to the battle effort. Not so long ago, China launched a 'satellite-killer' missile, which knocked out one of its own aging satellites. At a time when the US is trying to use networks and satellite communications to transform the nature of war, this creates deep disquiet.
But China itself strongly denies that its military was behind the cyber-attack on the US defence department. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the allegations were "absurd" and reflected "cold war thinking".