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US plotting to answer cyberthreat from China

– The Obama administration is considering more assertive action against Beijing to combat a persistent cyberespionage 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 hackers in China, 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. One official said it also will cite more directly a role by the Chinese government in such espionage.

The official said the NIE, an assessment prepared by the National Intelligence Council, will underscore the administration’s concerns about the threat and will put greater weight on plans for more aggressive action against the Chinese government. The official was not authorized to discuss the classified report and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

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.”

To date, extensive discussions between Chinese officials and top U.S. leaders – including President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – have done little to abate what government and cybersecurity experts say is escalating and technologically evolving espionage. The Chinese deny such espionage efforts.

A four-month-long cyberattack against the New York Times is the latest in a long string of breaches said to be by hackers from China into corporate and government computer systems across the United States. The Wall Street Journal on Thursday said that its computer systems, too, had been breached by hackers from China in an effort to monitor the newspaper’s coverage of China issues.

Media organizations with bureaus in China have believed for years that their computers, phones and conversations were likely monitored on a fairly regular basis by the Chinese. The Gmail account of an Associated Press staffer was broken into in China in 2010.

Richard Bejtlich, the chief security officer at Mandiant, the firm hired by the Times to investigate the cyberattack, said it had a personal aspect to it that became apparent: The hackers got into 53 computers but largely looked at the emails of the reporters working on a particular story. The newspaper’s investigation delved into how the relatives and family of Premier Wen Jiabao built a fortune worth more than $2 billion.

Journalists are popular targets, particularly in efforts to determine what information reporters have and who may be talking to them.

The Chinese foreign and defense ministries called the Times’ allegations baseless, and the Defense Ministry denied any involvement by the military.

In a report in November 2011, U.S. intelligence officials for the first time publicly accused China and Russia of systematically stealing American high-tech data for economic gain. And over the past several years, cybersecurity has been one of the key issues raised with allies as part of a broader U.S. effort to strengthen America’s defenses and encourage an international policy on accepted practices in cyberspace.

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