WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is considering more assertive action against Beijing to combat a persistent cyber-espionage campaign it believes Chinese hackers are waging against U.S. companies and government agencies.
As The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that their computer systems had been infiltrated by China-based hackers, cybersecurity experts said the U.S. government is eyeing more pointed diplomatic and trade measures.
Two former U.S. officials said the administration is preparing a new National Intelligence Estimate that, when complete, is expected to detail the cyberthreat, particularly from China, as a growing economic problem. Neither of the former officials was authorized to discuss the classified report and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
One of the former officials said the NIE, an assessment prepared by the National Intelligence Council, also will cite more directly a role by the Chinese government in such espionage. The former official said the NIE will underscore the administration's concerns about the threat and will put greater weight on plans for more aggressive action against the Chinese government.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with reporters as she wound up her tenure, said the U.S. needs to send a strong message that it will respond to such incidents.
"We have to begin making it clear to the Chinese - they're not the only people hacking us or attempting to hack us - that the United States is going to have to take action to protect not only our government's, but our private sector, from this kind of illegal intrusions. There's a lot that we are working on that will be deployed in the event that we don't get some kind of international effort under way," she said.
"Obviously this can become a very unwelcome and even dangerous tit-for-tat that could be a crescendo of consequences, here at home and around the world, that no one wants to see happen," she said.
Although the administration hasn't yet decided what steps it may take, actions could include threats to cancel certain visas or put major purchases of Chinese goods through national security reviews.
"The U.S. government has started to look seriously at more assertive measures and begun to engage the Chinese on senior levels," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They realize that this is a major problem in the bilateral relationship that threatens to destabilize U.S. relations with China."