As the much of the international media remained captivated by the unfolding drama over Edward Snowden’s search for asylum, on Sunday China and the U.S. began trading barbs on each other’s cyber activities.
China’s accusations came in the form of an editorial in the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which is often seen as representing the views of the Chinese leadership. Noting that, according to Snowden, U.S. intelligence agencies hack into China’s major mobile companies and universities—potentially collecting data on millions of Chinese—the editorial noted bluntly:
“These, along with previous allegations, are clearly troubling signs. They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age. [Emphasis added]”
The editorial goes on to say:
“Washington should come clean about its record first. It owes too an explanation to China and other countries it has allegedly spied on. It has to share with the world the range, extent and intent of its clandestine hacking programs.”
The U.S. seemed to answer these charges later in the day when Keith Alexander, the head of the U.S. National Security Agency, gave a rare interview on ABC’s This Week, one of America’s premier Sunday political talk show programs.
In the interview, Alexander—who also heads the U.S. Department of Defense’s cyber command—came close to confirming the charges, while defending the actions and trying to place on the blame on China.
When asked about Snowden’s allegations by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, the host of the program, Alexander stopped well short of denying them. According to a transcript of the show, Alexander said:
“Well, we have interest in those who collect on us as an intelligence agency. But to say that we're willfully just collecting all sorts of data would give you the impression that we're just trying to canvas the whole world.”
“The fact is what we're trying to do is get the information our nation needs, the foreign intelligence, that primary mission, in this case and the case that Snowden has brought up is in defending this nation from a terrorist attack.”
He would go on to defend the actions later in the response when saying,
“Now we have other intelligence interests just like other nations do. That's what you'd expect us to do. We do that right. Our main interest: who's collecting on us?”
Later in the interview, Stephanopoulos returned to the issue of China, when asking if it would be fair to say that the U.S. and China are engaged in a cyberwar and America is losing it.
“Well, I think our nation has been significantly impacted with intellectual property, the theft of intellectual property by China and others. That is the most significant transfer of wealth in history,” Alexander responded.
He then returned to his earlier theme of seeking to frame U.S. cyber-espionage in China as merely a response to Beijing’s own cyber activities against the U.S.
“And it goes right back to your initial question: who's taking our information? Is one of the things I believe the American people would expect me to know. That's one of my missions. Who's doing this to us? And why?”
“So when you asked your initial question, why, there's part of the answer. Who's coming after us? We need to know that so we can defend this nation.”
As previously reported, Alexander told Congress last month foreign cyber activities against the U.S. are worsening and the U.S. Department of Defense itself cannot protect its networks. During that testimony, he used the Chinese telecommunication company, Huawei, to illustrate the immense economic costs of failing to protect U.S. networks.
“If you look at Huawei and how they've come up so quickly, did they grow all by themselves or did they steal some of the intellectual property that led to it?,” Alexander pondered at the time.