By Cory Bennett - 06/06/15 06:28 PM EDT
GOP presidential hopefuls are bashing President Obama over his handling of China in the wake of a massive digital theft of federal workers’ data that officials have tied to Beijing.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on Thursday revealed that hackers had snapped up roughly 4 million employees’ records.
Several Republican candidates argued on Friday that Obama’s failure to employ a strong hand with the Asian power empowered the country to launch digital assaults at will against the U.S. government and private sector.
“We need a different strategy to confront Chinese behavior — whether in the South China Sea or in cyberspace,” said Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive, on Facebook.
“Yet another example of America being walked over by rivals and adversaries,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamKerry threatens to end talks with Russia on Syria Obama nominates ambassador to Cuba Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (R-S.C.), who declared his candidacy Monday.
In recent years, security experts say China has built up its cyber capabilities, ranking as a leading world power.
In addition to using its considerable prowess to monitor its own citizens, China has also launched a pervasive cyber espionage campaign against the U.S.
“China is rapidly evolving from a sometime partner, sometime competitor, into an adversary,” Fiorina said.
The recent OPM breach is thought to be part of a broader scheme to create a database on high-ranking U.S. officials and defense contractors.
Researchers have linked the suspected OPM hackers to the digital intruders behind the gargantuan breaches at health insurers Anthem and Premera, which exposed over 90 million people’s data, possibly including that of White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel.
Experts worry the stockpile of data could be used to imitate or even blackmail senior U.S. officials.
“They have a tremendous amount of stepping stones they can use for further activity,” said John Hultquist, senior manager of online espionage threat intelligence at iSight, a security firm.
The problem, say Republican candidates, is that China has no fear of repercussions.
“We need a leader who will challenge the status quo in Washington and confront our adversaries abroad,” said Fiorina.
The U.S. has struggled to maintain diplomatic cyber relations with China, while simultaneously trying to step up pressure on Beijing to end its hacking and digital theft of commercial secrets.
The Justice Department last year indicted five members of the Chinese military for hacking.
Recently updated White House and Pentagon national security and cybersecurity documents also directly call out China on cyber espionage.
But the administration continues to promote a diplomatic path in the hopes of establishing international norms in cyberspace. The Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to reestablish an official cyber dialogue, which was cut off following the DOJ indictments last year.
The tactic doesn’t sit well with the GOP field.
“The Obama administration's failures in foreign policy and national security continue to pile up yet they do nothing to change course,” Graham said.
Huckabee has criticized the president for even engaging China in trade deals.
“China cheats, rips-off American products, abuses its people, taunts our allies, and now they're crawling through our federal government stealing sensitive personal information from millions of people,” he said.
“As president, I will stop Chinese cheating, hold China accountable, and never, ever apologize for protecting Americans.”