White House will retaliate against China for OPM hacks

Getty Images

The Obama administration has decided it will retaliate against China for orchestrating the devastating digital theft of over 22 million Americans' personal information, The New York Times reported.

The response is still unformed and may not come for weeks.

ADVERTISEMENT
The decision to retaliate is a sudden reversal for the White House, which had previously indicated it might not even publicly blame China for the cyberattacks. Administration officials have only privately accused Beijing of ordering the digital strike.

“One of the conclusions we’ve reached is that we need to be a bit more public about our responses, and one reason is deterrence,” one senior administration official involved in the debate told The Times. “We need to disrupt and deter what our adversaries are doing in cyberspace, and that means you need a full range of tools to tailor a response.”

President Obama has been under mounting pressure to respond to the attacks, considered the largest ever digital theft of government data.

“What we’re seeing with these repeated hacks and repeated intrusions is that building your defense is not enough in and of itself,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffUS reveals death toll from terror strikes outside war zones The Hill's 12:30 Report Dems release parallel Benghazi report ahead of GOP MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters shortly after the hacks were first revealed. “There also has to be a deterrent.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper even seemed to break slightly with the administration line in a recent interview, saying that not responding to the OPM hack would invite future, bolder attacks.

“I think we'll see a progression and expansion of that envelope until such times as we create both the substance and the psychology of deterrents,” he said.

But the substance of the White House’s ultimate response is still in question. The administration apparently initially explored economic sanctions, similar to those levied on North Korea after the East Asian regime was blamed for a destructive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

“The analogy simply didn’t work,” a senior economic official told The Times, because Beijing has leverage to impose counter-sanctions against major American businesses operating in China.

The Justice Department is also reportedly exploring criminal charges against individuals or organizations behind the OPM hacks.

In May 2014, the DOJ indicted five members of the Chinese military for hacking the U.S. But those charges were for commercial economic espionage, not government intelligence espionage.

As a policy matter, the U.S. has tried to respond to intelligence with counterintelligence, not criminal charges, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report on the OPM hacks.

These factors will all complicate the ultimate response. But the administration has determined that the unprecedented scale of the OPM assault merits some type of public action.

“This is one of those cases where you have to ask, ‘Does the size of the operation change the nature of it?’” a senior intelligence official told The Times. “Clearly, it does.”