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Russians Hack Joint Chiefs Email System
| published August 8, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts Thursday Review contributor

NBC News and other media sources are reporting that the U.S. Department of Defense was forced to take offline its “Joint Chiefs Staff” unclassified email platform 12 days ago after Pentagon cyber-experts detected an intrusion by Russian hackers. The cyber-attack may have occurred on July 25, and apparently impacted the email accounts of the more than 4,000 employees—civilian, uniformed, contractors—who work directly for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The attack has been characterized by U.S. cyber-security experts and Pentagon officials as “extremely sophisticated.” Pentagon cyber-security teams shut down the email network as soon as it was discovered that the system had been hacked by cyber-sleuths identified as Russian in origin.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has said whether the attack was state-sponsored, or whether it was the work of rogue hackers somewhere in Russia. Some media reports indicate, however, that the code used in the attack carries the unmistakable thumbprint of Russian hackers, but whether the cyber-attack was sanctioned by Moscow remains the unanswered question. The FBI is also investigating the attack.

Pentagon officials stress that the attack did not compromise classified documents or sensitive materials, and that the Joint Chiefs Staff network was merely an email system for routine day-to-day activities and communications. Still, some cyber-experts worry that if Russian hackers can gain such close access to Pentagon communications, it may only be a matter of time before an even more sophisticated attack leads to a breach of classified materials, weapons system information, or the data regarding military movements and troop deployments.

The email platform and its servers have remained shut down since the breach was discovered in late July, and the Pentagon has said it will have the network back up and operating normally—using improved firewalls and anti-intrusion measures—later this week or early next week.

The cyber-attack on the Pentagon comes just a month after it was revealed that hackers with links to China breached the computer networks of several Federal agencies, including the Office of Personnel Management, stealing the Social Security numbers, addresses, birth dates and other personal data from as many as 22 million current and former government employees. Millions of those stolen personnel files include the complete data of government employees and military personnel who have been the subject of full background checks.

The cyber-attack on the Office of Personnel Management was the largest breach of a U.S. government agency’s database in history, and some organizations who represent Federal workers and government contractors suggest that the breach may have also exposed pay rates, past employment backgrounds, disciplinary action, insurance records and direct deposit information.

The Pentagon says that the email platform will be back up and running within the week, and that additional security measures have been put in place to prevent such attacks in the future.

Related Thursday Review articles:

More Than 22 Million Impacted by Cyber Attack; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 9, 2015.

China Hacks Federal Employee Records; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; June 5, 2015.