Major cyber breach at the Department of Energy?

When outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta defended the Pentagon’s newly-approved plan to drastically expand their cyber security force, he was not messing around. “Unidentified” foreign entities certainly have been ramping up the scale of their cyber attacks of late, and I don’t just mean at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The WFB reports that computer networks at the DOE were target by what looks like sophisticated hackers in a major incident two weeks ago, and that the personal information of several hundred employees was compromised:

Energy Department officials, along with FBI agents, are investigating the attack on servers at the Washington headquarters. They believe the sophisticated penetration attack was not limited to stealing personal information. There are indications the attackers had other motives, possibly including plans to gain future access to classified and other sensitive information. …

The source or identity of the cyber attacker is not known, according to U.S. officials and outside security analysts. However, Chinese hackers are likely suspects because the department is known to be a major target of China for both secrets and technology. Also, the relative sophistication of the cyber attack is an indication of nation-state involvement.

Evidently, no classified information was compromised in this particular attack, but something tells me the infiltrators weren’t looking to merely copy our methods on that oh-so-successful green energy loan guarantee program:

The department’s National Nuclear Security Administration is in charge of developing and maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons and related infrastructure. …

The department “is on the cutting edge of some of the most sophisticated military and intelligence technology the country owns and it is being treated frivolously by the Department of Energy and its political masters,” McCallum said.

McCallum said the Chinese have been targeting DoE for a long time and now the Iranians are beginning to try and steal DoE secrets.

Major U.S. companies, media outlets, and various government departments and agencies — these types of attacks have only been gaining in momentum in recent years on the burgeoning cyber-warfare frontier, and it sounds like the administration is at least starting to dabble in ways to send stronger signals to the Chinese:

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 U.S. 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. “They realize that this is a major problem in the bilateral relationship that threatens to destabilize U.S. relations with China.”

To date, extensive discussions between Chinese officials and top U.S. leaders — including President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — have had little impact on what government and cybersecurity experts say is escalating and technologically evolving espionage. The Chinese deny such espionage efforts.