Comment: Are Clinton’s Cyberattack Protests Hypocritical?

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

The Chinese have accused the US government of hypocrisy in criticizing Beijing for its alleged role in organized hacking attacks, which recently drove Google to abandon its operations in China. Speaking last Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that “[c]ountries or individuals that engage in cyberattacks should face consequences and international condemnation”. But a subsequent editorial in government-owned The People’s Daily essentially said that China is not the only country that engages in cyberwarfare; the US does it too. Is this true? Most likely, yes.

American media pundits tend to forget that Washington is not alone in condemning cyberwarfare and cyberespionage. IntelNews readers will recall that, back in September of 2008, the Russian delegation at the 63rd United Nations Assembly initiated a formal resolution on international IT security. The resolution was unanimously approved by Assembly members, with one exception: the United States.

In reporting this in 2008, I wondered whether “the US, which has been building its own advanced cyber-attack arsenal since the mid-1990s, has more to gain from international IT insecurity than do its adversaries”. I repeated this question in January of 2009, when The New York Times published a front-page exposé of an ongoing CIA operation to sabotage Iranian nuclear laboratories and installations, which included sabotage of “computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies”.

It would be difficult –indeed ludicrous– to believe that the world’s most advanced military power, which relies on the world’s most powerful civilian electronic eavesdropping agency, does not employ cyberespionage techniques in dealing with real or perceived enemies. It did so in the late 1990s in Yugoslavia (particularly by hacking Slobodan Milosevic’s bank accounts in Russia, Cyprus and elsewhere) and has done so numerous times since then, including today in Iran, if The New York Times report is to be believed.

The US Secretary of State’s admonition ignores the reality of cybersecurity and cyberespionage: like two sides of the same coin, one cannot exist without the other. Nations the world over spend billions each year trying to augment both sides, and employ them at will in pursuit of –sometimes justified, sometimes unwarranted– national goals. In the shadow of overt politics, away from the limelight of idealistic pronouncements of the kind that Mrs. Clinton uttered last week, government-employed cyberspies are busy performing their assigned tasks. Ultimately, in the eyes of IT security experts, Chinese and American government-employed hackers appear strikingly similar.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of His latest writings for are available here.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

One Response to Comment: Are Clinton’s Cyberattack Protests Hypocritical?

  1. Kohji says:

    I actually am an US IT security expert. China is our biggest threat, moreso then organized crime, and isolated criminals.

    Here is the problem as I see it.

    China spies. The US spies. Both deny. Pretty much everyone gets this.

    But, China has crossed the line, they have left it so far back, they don’t even know where it is anymore.

    Documenting that is difficult, I don’t keep bookmarks, but on the ground, we see a lot of corporate hacking, a lot of sci-tech theft, a lot of ominous moves… that speak darkly of China’s hardliners who must well exist somewhere in there… despite their generally pragmatic, friendly face.

    Their moves strain trust. They are not untrusted because they have nepotism or remnants of communism in their system, they are untrusted because of these moves they have been making. Which is a bad situation for the world, and for China.

    Russia depended on this kind of… the chinese have the word, “cheating”. China is relying on it as well. Their system is flawed and they have many desperate quarters. You don’t want countries to be desperate like this. They break ordinary ethical codes. And with a strong anti-western, imperialist bad memory national sentiment… that is a bad combination.

    Unfortunately, encouraging China to modernize (further) their political system is often seen as strikes against their status quo. And it is. In a sense.

    This produces defensive behavior.

    Feeds the hawks.

    It is a dangerous set of circumstances they are under right now, and we are strapped so close to them, the whole free world… everyone is along for the ride.

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