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'You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did'

The massive cyberattack on the US government made public earlier this month was probably done by Chinese hackers, the top US intelligence official has said.

Speaking at a conference in Washington DC, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said China "remains the leading suspect" and that "the US government continues to investigate" the breach.

Earlier this year the personnel records of millions of federal government employees were compromised by a sophisticated cyberattack — estimates vary between 4 and 18 million people's data was taken but an official number has yet to be provided.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in reference to how difficult the data was to access, Clapper also said: "You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did."


The government had up until Thursday refused to blame China in public for the breach, but many US officials have since been saying privately the hackers were likely to be Chinese.

Beijing has denied involvement in the incident, and has not commented yet on Clapper's allegations.

Clapper also called for policy measures to protect US government and business from cyber-espionage.

"The challenge here, the problem for us, frankly, is until such time as we can create both the substance and the psychology of deterrence, this is going to go on," he said.

"And that's been a struggle for us, because of concerns about unintended consequences and other related policy issues."

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, said China 'remains the leading suspect' of the data breach (Getty)

Implying there's a discussion within the White House about how best to respond to attacks of this kind, he said there should be a greater emphasis on cyber-defence.

The Treasury Department were earlier this year given fresh powers via presidential executive order to impose sanctions on anyone who conducts a "significant threat" cyberattack against the US government or a US company.

Addressing a question over what he would do in response to the Chinese, Clapper said that's up to the White House: "We are just down in the engine room shoveling intelligence coal."