Hackers targeted US nuclear weapons agency in massive cybersecurity breach, reports say

Attack part of wider assault on federal agencies and critical infrastructure

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Friday 18 December 2020 14:50 GMT
Hackers targeted US nuclear weapons agency in massive cybersecurity breach
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The National Nuclear Security Administration and Energy Department, which safeguard the US stockpile of nuclear weapons, have had their networks hacked as part of the widespread cyber espionage attack on a number of federal agencies.

Politico reports that officials have begun coordinating notifications about the security breach to the relevant congressional oversight bodies.

Suspicious activity was identified in the networks of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in New Mexico and Washington, the Office of Secure Transportation, and the Richland Field Office of the Department of Energy.

Officials with direct knowledge of the matter said hackers have been able to do more damage to the network at FERC, according to the report.

Shaylyn Hynes, a DOE spokesperson told The Independent that the department is responding in coordination with federal and industry partners and that the investigation is ongoing and the response to this incident is happening in real time.

“At this point, the investigation has found that the malware has been isolated to business networks only, and has not impacted the mission essential national security functions of the department, including the National Nuclear Security Administration,” she said.

"When DOE identified vulnerable software, immediate action was taken to mitigate the risk, and all software identified as being vulnerable to this attack was disconnected from the DOE network.”

DOE is in constant communication with its industry partners, including the leadership of the energy sector Subsector Coordinating Councils.

Regular contact is also being maintained with the Information Sharing and Analysis Centres for electricity, oil and natural gas, and downstream natural gas, which facilitate communication between the government and all partners in those sectors.

Federal authorities have expressed alarm about the intrusion into US and other computer systems around the world that officials suspect was carried out by Russian hackers.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned of a “grave” risk to government and private networks.

In its most detailed comments yet, the agency said on Thursday that the intrusion had compromised federal agencies as well as “critical infrastructure” in a sophisticated attack that was hard to detect and difficult to undo.

CISA did not specify which agencies or infrastructure had been breached, nor what information had been taken. It is believed that the attack began in March.

The agency said previously that the perpetrators had used network management software from Texas-based SolarWinds to infiltrate computer networks. An updated alert says the hackers may have used other methods, as well.

The DOE confirmed that the attack on their system was related to SolarWinds.

The Associated Press report an official as saying: “This is looking like it’s the worst hacking case in the history of America. They got into everything.”

If it can be proven that the hack originated in Russia, it could create a fresh foreign policy headache for the Trump administration in its final days in the White House.

Senator Mitt Romney ot Utah commented on the apparent silence from the Oval Office: "I think the White House needs to say something aggressive about what happened. This is almost as if you had a Russian bomber flying undetected over the country, including over the nation's capital, and not to respond in a setting like that is really stunning."

President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement: “I want to be clear: my administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government – and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office.”

He continued: “We will elevate cybersecurity as an imperative across the government, further strengthen partnerships with the private sector, and expand our investment in the infrastructure and people we need to defend against malicious cyber attacks."

The president-elect added that he wants to go on the offensive to disrupt and deter such attacks in the future, saying that he would not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults. 

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