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US weighing response to Chinese hackers

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 US 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 specialists said the US government is eyeing more pointed diplomatic and trade measures.

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Two former US 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 estimate, 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.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with reporters as she wound up her tenure, said the United States 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 intrusion. 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 underway,’’ 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 US 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.

To date, extensive discussions between Chinese officials and top US leaders have had little effect on what government and cybersecurity specialist said is escalating and technologically evolving espionage. The Chinese deny such espionage efforts.

A four-month long cyberattack against the Times is the latest in a long string of breaches said to be by China-based hackers into corporate and government computer systems across the United States. The Times attacks, routed through computers at US universities, targeted staff members’ e-mail accounts, the Times said, and were likely in retribution for the newspaper’s investigation into the wealth amassed by the family of a top Chinese leader.

The Chinese foreign and defense ministries called the Times’ allegations baseless.

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