WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday explicitly accused China’s military of mounting attacks on US government computer systems and defense contractors, saying one motive could be to map ‘‘military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.’’
While some recent estimates have more than 90 percent of cyberespionage in the United States originating in China, the accusations relayed in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities were remarkable in their directness. Until now the administration had avoided directly accusing both the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army of using cyberweapons against the United States in a deliberate, government-developed strategy to steal intellectual property and gain strategic advantage.
“In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military,’’ the nearly 100-page report said.
The report, released Monday, described China’s primary goal as stealing industrial technology but said that many intrusions also seemed aimed at obtaining insights into American policymakers’ thinking. It warned that the same information-gathering could easily be used for ‘‘building a picture of US network defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.’’
It was unclear why the administration chose the Pentagon report to make assertions that it has long declined to make at the White House. A White House official declined to say at what level the report was cleared. A senior defense official said, ‘‘this was a thoroughly coordinated report.’’
The report said China’s primary goal was stealing technology but many intrusions seemed aimed at obtaining insights into American policymakers’ thinking.
Missing from the Pentagon report was any acknowledgment of the similar abilities being developed in the United States, where billions of dollars are spent each year on cyberdefense and constructing sophisticated cyberweapons. Recently the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, who is also commander of the military’s fast-growing Cyber Command, told Congress that he was creating more than a dozen offensive cyberunits, designed to mount attacks at foreign computer networks.
When the United States mounted its cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities early in President Obama’s first term,the president expressed concern to aides that China and other states might use the US operations to justify their own intrusions.
But the Pentagon report describes something far more sophisticated: a China that has now leapt into the first ranks of cybertechnologies, investing in electronic warfare capabilities, and searching for ways to blind US satellites and other assets.
Two months ago the Obama administration would not officially confirm reports in The New York Times, based in large part on a detailed study by the computer security firm Mandiant, that identified PLA Unit 21398 near Shanghai as the likely source of many of the biggest thefts of data from US companies and some government institutions. But government officials said the overall issue of cyberintrusions would move to the center of the US-China relationship, and it was raised on recent trips by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.
To bolster its case, the report argues that cyberweapons have become integral to Chinese military strategy. It cites two major public works of military doctrine, ‘‘Science of Strategy’’ and ‘‘Science of Campaigns,’’ saying they identify ‘‘information warfare (IW) as integral to achieving information superiority and an effective means for countering a stronger foe.’’ But it notes that neither document ‘‘identifies the specific criteria for employing [a] computer network attack against an adversary,’’ though they ‘‘advocate developing capabilities to compete in this medium.’’
It is a critique the Chinese could just as easily level at the United States, where the Pentagon has declined to describe the conditions under which it would use cyberweapons.
The Pentagon report also explicitly states that China’s investments in the United States aim to bolster its own military technology.