by Eric Lichtblau, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON U.S. intelligence officials
believe the Chinese military is working to launch
wide-scale cyber-attacks on American and Taiwanese
computer networks, including Internet-linked military
systems considered vulnerable to sabotage, according
to a classified CIA report.
Moreover, U.S. authorities are bracing for a
possible wave of hacking attacks by Chinese students
against the United States in coming weeks, according
to the analysis. The confidential alert, which was
reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, was sent to
intelligence officials a week ago.
Although U.S. officials have voiced concerns about
individual hackers in China who have defaced federal
and private Web sites, the United States has resisted
publicly linking the Chinese government to those
attacks or to broader cyber-style warfare.
The new CIA report, however, makes clear that U.S.
intelligence analysts have become increasingly
concerned that authorities in Beijing are actively
planning to damage and disrupt U.S. computer systems
through the use of Internet hacking and computer
Although the assessment concludes that China has
not yet acquired the technical sophistication to do
broad damage to U.S. and Taiwanese systems, it
maintains that this is the "intended goal" of the
People's Liberation Army. "The mission of Chinese
special forces includes physical sabotage" of
vulnerable systems, the report says a sign that
some analysts said is driven by China's hostility
The report comes as Chinese Vice President Hu
Jintao prepares to visit the U.S. next week. Hu, who
will succeed Jiang Zemin as head of the Communist
Party this year and as president in 2003, will visit
Honolulu, San Francisco and New York before going to
Washington, where he will meet with President
The Chinese Embassy in Washington insisted
yesterday that Beijing is only conducting computer
research that is strictly defensive in nature.
"It is not the Chinese government's policy to
disrupt the computer system of any other country,"
said Larry Wu, an official in the embassy's science
and technology section.
"We do research on the security of computers, of
course self-defense to understand how a hacker
can get into our computer systems so we can defend
it," he said. "But China has never assumed an
offensive stance with regards to computer
But several specialists in Chinese security and
military affairs said the CIA's conclusions jibe with
their own observations about China's research into
"We should be very worried about this issue," said
James Mulvenon, a China analyst at the Rand Corp.
think tank who has done extensive studies into Chinese
Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province,
appears to be the driving force behind the Chinese
interest in hacking, Mulvenon said. Under one
scenario, if China were to make good on its
long-standing threat to invade Taiwan, the Chinese
military could then seek to deploy widespread computer
disruptions against American and Taiwanese military
systems to slow any effort by U.S. forces to intervene
in Taiwan's defense, he said.
The issue threatens to inflame tense relations
between the United States and the Communist regime in
China, relations already frayed by charges and
countercharges during the past several years over
alleged nuclear, military and political espionage.
Relations hit a low point last year after a U.S.
spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided over the
South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot and
triggering an international standoff over the return
of the Whidbey-based plane's 24 Navy crew members.
For days, officials in Beijing and Washington
traded accusations about the crash and debated what
kind of statement of regret the U.S. would sign and
China would accept.
China detained the plane's crew for 11 days and
returned the disassembled plane months later.
Recent months have seen a warming in relations as
the Bush administration secured China's cooperation in
the war on terrorism. But China has become upset by
what it sees as the White House's increasingly
favorable overtures toward Taiwan.
The CIA's assessment discusses both Taiwan and the
United States, revealing that U.S. intelligence
officials believe both are targets of the Chinese
"The People's Liberation Army does not yet have the
capability to carry out its intended goal of
disrupting Taiwanese military and civilian
infrastructures or U.S. military logistics using
computer virus attacks," said the CIA's report, which
was included in a broader national security assessment
that authorities distributed to intelligence
"China's virus attack capabilities are similar to
those of sophisticated hackers and are limited to
temporary disruption of sectors that use the
Internet," the CIA review said. "A Chinese virus
attack is capable of reaching e-mail communications,
laptops brought into China, and U.S. Internet-based
A U.S. intelligence official who was briefed on the
issue but asked not to be identified said analysts
believe that, although the most sensitive U.S.
military databases are secure from hackers and
viruses, Internet-based military systems that are used
for communications with bases around the world and
with outside military vendors could be vulnerable.
"These aren't the keys to the kingdom we're talking
about," the official said. "There's no danger that the
Chinese are going to hack into our nuclear launch
codes, but there is the danger they could gather
useful intelligence from penetrating some of the less
sensitive networks that the Department of Defense
utilizes all over the world."