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REPORT: China Hacks Obama, McCain Campaigns, Takes Internal Documents

15m ago
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The U.S. secretly traced a massive cyberespionage operation against the 2008 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain to hacking units backed by the People's Republic of China, prompting high level warnings to Chinese officials to stop such activities, U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News. The disclosure on the eve of a two-day summit between the U.S. and Chinese presidents highlights what has become a persistent source of tension between the two global powers: Beijing's aggressive, orchestrated campaign to pierce America's national security armor at any weak point -- in this case the computers and laptops of top campaign aides and advisers who received high-level briefings. The goal of the campaign intrusion, according to the officials: to export massive amounts of internal data from both campaigns—including internal position papers and private emails of key advisers in both camps. "Based on everything I know, this was a case of political cyberespionage by the Chinese government against the two American political parties," said Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama's director of national intelligence in 2009 and 2010. "They were looking for positions on China, surprises that might be rolled out by campaigns against China." The intrusion into the campaigns' computer networks and subsequent efforts to penetrate them were highly sophisticated and continued for months after they were first detected by the FBI in the summer of 2008, according to the officials and an Obama campaign security consultant hired to thwart them. The intrusions and some details of what was targeted have been previously reported, but not publicly attributed to government-backed Chinese hackers. President Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, tells NBC's Michael Isikoff about the cyberattacks that infiltrated Obama's campaign. At the time, Plouffe said, Obama's reaction was one of surprise because there was no precedent for such an attack. Obama publicly referred to the attacks -- in general terms -- at a May 29, 2009, White House event announcing a new cybersecurity policy. "Hackers gained access to emails and a range of campaign files, from policy position papers to travel plans," he said then. But neither the president nor his top aides publicly spoke about the identity of the hackers, or the depth and gravity of the attack. Officials and former campaign officials now acknowledge to NBC News that the security breach was far more serious than has been publicly known, involving the potential compromise of a large number of internal files. And, in one case, it included the apparent theft of private correspondence from McCain to the president of Taiwan. Cyberattacks by the Chinese are expected to be at the top of the president's agenda this weekend. U.S. officials say that such intrusions -- many of them traced to a unit of the People's Republic of China in Shanghai -- have gotten even more brazen since the 2008 campaign. Shawn Henry, president of CrowdStrike Services, tells NBC's Michael Isikoff there's "little doubt" the Chinese government has an aggressive electronic espionage program targeting the US government and the commercial sector. "There's been successful exfiltration of data from government agencies (by the Chinese) up and down Pennsylvania Avenue," said Shawn Henry, who headed up the FBI's probe of the 2008 attacks as the bureau's chief of cyberinvestigations. He is now president of Crowdstrike, a computer security firm. David Plouffe, Obama campaign manager, vividly recalls getting a phone call from Josh Bolton, then President George W. Bush's chief of staff, in the middle of August 2008 alerting him to the intrusion and that the FBI was investigating the attack. "He said we have reason to believe that your campaign system has been penetrated by a foreign entity," Plouffe said in an interview. Within days, the campaign dispatched a computer security team from Kroll Advisory Solutions to Chicago to cle...