US cybersecurity agency warns of ‘grave’ threat from hack

Ben Fox
Associated Press

Washington – Federal authorities expressed increased alarm Thursday about an intrusion into U.S. and other computer systems around the globe that officials suspect was carried out by Russian hackers. The nation’s cybersecurity agency warned of a “grave” risk to government and private networks.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in its most detailed comments yet that the intrusion had compromised federal agencies as well as “critical infrastructure” in a sophisticated attack that was hard to detect and will be difficult to undo.

This Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009, file photo shows the United States Chamber of Commerce building in Washington. Elite cyber spies have spent months secretly exploiting SolarWinds software to peer into computer networks, putting many of the company's highest-profile customers in national governments, including the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, and Fortune 500 companies on high alert.

CISA did not say which agencies or infrastructure had been breached or what information taken in an attack that it previously said appeared to have begun in March.

“This threat actor has demonstrated sophistication and complex tradecraft in these intrusions,” the agency said in its unusual alert. “CISA expects that removing the threat actor from compromised environments will be highly complex and challenging.”

President Donald Trump, whose administration has been criticized for eliminating a White House cybersecurity adviser and downplaying Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, has made no public statements about the breach.

President-elect Joe Biden said he would make cybersecurity a top priority of his administration, but that stronger defenses are not enough.

“We need to disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking significant cyberattacks in the first place,” he said. “We will do that by, among other things, imposing substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks, including in coordination with our allies and partners.”

The cybersecurity agency previously said the perpetrators had used network management software from Texas-based SolarWinds t o infiltrate computer networks. Its new alert said the attackers may have used other methods, as well.

Over the weekend, amid reports that the Treasury and Commerce departments were breached, CISA directed all civilian agencies of the federal government to remove SolarWinds from their servers. The cybersecurity agencies of Britain and Ireland issued similar alerts.

A U.S. official previously told The Associated Press that Russia-based hackers were suspected, but neither CISA nor the FBI has publicly said who is believed be responsible. Asked whether Russia was behind the attack, the official said: “We believe so. We haven’t said that publicly yet because it isn’t 100% confirmed.”

Another U.S. official, speaking Thursday on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that is under investigation, said the hack was severe and extremely damaging although the administration was not yet ready to publicly blame anyone for it.

“This is looking like it’s the worst hacking case in the history of America,” the official said. “They got into everything.”

The official said the administration is working on the assumption that most, if not all, government agencies were compromised but the extent of the damage was not yet known.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed.