Hackers believed to be working for China have been accessing the European Union’s diplomatic communications and copying highly confidential cables, in a staggering and widespread security breach that has lasted years.
More than 1,100 cables were supplied to the New York Times by cybersecurity firm Area 1 after it discovered the breach.
The newspaper reported that they had been hacked using ‘techniques resembling those long used by an elite unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army.’
Although some of the cables intercepted from the European Union’s diplomats communications network are just fact-based dispatches, others reveal highly sensitive concerns about the Trump administration, struggles to deal with Russia and China and the risk of Iran reviving its nuclear program.
More than 1,100 EU cables were intercepted by hackers who are believed to be working for the Chinese over the last three years
Some detail decision-making processes within the White House, including the controversial publication of the Nunes memo in February, and others describe the global community’s position on Trump’s tangos with Russia, Beijing and North Korea.
The fact that the hackers were able to access to the wires at a time when the future of the global community was so uncertain is an astounding and embarrassing breach.
The EU’s secretariat has said it is aware of the ‘allegations’ but would not confirm the breach nor acknowledge its severity.
TRUMP AND PUTIN’S HELSINKI SUMMIT
The EU delegation in Russia shared a memo after Trump and Putin’s Finland summit where they poked fun at the US president’s performance.
‘After a successful (at least for Putin) Helsinki summit, Moscow now waits for the calming of emotions in Washington,’ they said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is quoted as saying of the meeting: ‘While Trump admired Putin, Putin saw Trump as an outlier.’
Other embarrassing details that were leaked include efforts by White House officials to try to ‘nip down’ Trump’s promise that Russians they would be able to question former American diplomats if Americans would be able to question Russians who had been indicted by Mueller.
One cable quotes European diplomats as saying that the July meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki was only successful for Putin. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also quoted as saying of the event: ‘While Trump admired Putin, Putin saw Trump as an outlier’
Fearful they would face questioning from Russian officials afterwards, White House National Security Council officials told the EU it would not happen.
‘NSC added that the idea of an US-Russia investigation swap (granting access to special counsel Mueller to interrogate indicted Russian officials if the US agrees on the same in the “Browder case”, including access to former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul) will be “nipped down”
‘…after the NSC debrief, the White House stated that President Trump disagrees with a proposal from President Putin; earlier, the Senate voted 98-0 against this idea,’ it said.
Other European figures were nervous that the meeting represented Trump condoning Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
‘The Crimean-Tatar community leader Refat Chubarov called upon his constituency not to panic over the joint press conference of Presidents Trump and Putin.
‘He added that the U.S. foreign policy, including sanctions, is determined not only by the President,’ one cable said.
It also detailed how Ukrainian president
TRUMP’S EXCITEMENT ABOUT THE NUNES MEMO: ‘I’LL BE TOTALLY VINDICATED’
Others were more detailed and pertained to domestic issues such as the release of the Nunes memo.
Trump controversially decided to release the memo in February in an effort to expose the alleged misconduct Nunes described within the FBI in it.
The memo threatened to undermine the ongoing investigation into President Trump by Senate Judiciary Committees and prove bias on the part of the FBI in its relentless probing of his election dealings and of how it handled Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
‘White House (General Kelly) says that the President will likely follow the advice of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein…Trump ‘messaged that he was “totally vindicated” by the memo’
Before he released it, the EU delegate described the mood in Washington and how Trump was weighing up what to do.
In a February 8 memo, they wrote: ‘The ‘Nunes memo’ detailing alleged FBI malfeasance in securing FISA surveillance of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page fizzles on substance but is still regarded a political win for the President, since it furthers the narrative of a politically motivated Russia investigation.
‘The President must now decide whether to release the countering Democratic memo, also as newly revealed FBI agent text messages fuel another round of conservative media speculation.’
Later, they said: ‘President Trump weighs release of Schiff FISA memo.
‘The ten page Democratic response to the Nunes FISA memo was unanimously approved for public release by the House Intelligence Committee. This cannot happen, however, without President Trump’s approval, with a decision expected by the end of the day Friday 9 February.
‘White House (General Kelly) says that the President will likely follow the advice of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, whom Trump had overruled in releasing the Nunes memo.
‘It is entirely possible that Rosenstein and FBI Director Wray may again advise as with Nunes that the Democratic memo not be released.’
The delegate noted that Trump ‘messaged that he was “totally vindicated” by the memo’ and added: ‘Another round of anti-Clinton and anti-Mueller sentiment amongst some Republican Members and in conservative media is in the air.’
THE GLOBAL FIGHT ON NORTH KOREA
The cables include thousands of references to the US’s role in the global community and detailed information about how President Trump runs the White House which came, in part, in the form of weekly reports from the EU’s delegation in Washington.
In January this year, a report detailed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Lithuania and some of the remarks Abe made about his commitment to working with the US and not alienating it as an ally.
‘PM noted that North Korea had become a real threat to Europe as well, given that the North Korean missiles were capable of reaching Vilnius… Japan’s PM insisted that the international community needed to: i) maximize pressure on North Korea ii) urge North Korea to change their policies, iii) make sure North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and technologies…
‘With regard to the global role of the United States, PM Abe underlined the importance of the alliance with the US for Japan’s security and the need to support US President Donald Trump,’ the report read.
There were detailed discussions about how other countries wanted to proceed.
Another report detailed Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to South Korea and his apparent attempts to reverse the negative ‘propaganda’ being spread against the US.
‘While in Japan, Pence announced that the U.S. “will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever”. However, this announcement, as various other elements of VP Pence’s trip (visits to military bases, etc.) seem to be an attempt to counter the strong propaganda moves for and around the Olympics by the DPRK.’
XI JINPING UNLEASHES ON TRUMP AT EU SUMMIT
In an enthusiastic rebuke of Trump, the following notes were taken from the China EU Summit in July this year from Beijing:
‘On trade, XJP said that China was the last to fight a trade war. The US was bullying China and “we are fearful of that”. China did not want to face trouble but would “not flinch in the face of others” and would not submit to bullying.
‘The EU and China both focused on common rules, whereas the US was behaving as if it was fighting in a no-rules freestyle boxing match.
‘The US had thrown all rules out of the window and unilaterally imposed labels on others without providing them with the possibility to defend themselves.
‘That left China with only two options: throwing in the towel or fighting back and taking countermeasures. Caving in would embolden the bully. The Chinese people would not accept this, even if a trade war would hurt everybody. China was not a backward country anymore. Citing the 4 May movement, he noted that today’s China was not that of the Qing dynasty and that Chinese people were resilient.
‘China was confident with its 1.4 bn strong internal market and its worldwide close trade ties with literally every country in the world. China had been through poverty and hardship when it was under blockade. The Chinese would take hardship again, if that was what it would take. But if the US wanted talks, the Chinese door remained open.
‘The challenge with the US Administration was that it never kept its promises.
‘The escalation to US$ 50 bn, then US$ 200 bn then US$ 500-600 bn trade affected by additional tariffs was staggering and it was unclear from where the US derived these figures. Was there really so much trade?
‘Even US companies were shocked by this approach. The US was inconsistent, turning against the WTO and the Paris Agreement. Obama had convinced XJP to join the Paris Agreement, but now the US had withdrawn under Trump.
‘US demands were inconsistent, illogical, and would ultimately hurt its own interests.
‘All this showed that the US “had totally deviated” from WTO rules.’
‘DANGER IS AFOOT’: CHINA AND A TRADE WAR
The following report came out of Beijing after Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June:
‘While on the surface both the US and China celebrated the outcome of the Singapore Summit, it is probable that they were celebratory for vastly different reasons, with Trump briefly happy to adopt the mantle of peacemaker and China relieved at what appears to be the adoption of its preferred strategy of “double suspension” and “double track” negotiations.
‘But with Pompeo quickly walking back on any semblance of immediate sanctions relief and China hesitating to re-commit itself to maintaining the existing sanctions regime, danger is afoot.
During talks between European officials and Chinese President Xi Jinping in July, the Chinese Premier reportedly told officials ‘China is not a backwards country any more’
‘This is also true for the Sino-US trade relationship; with both sides likely to impose a new round of tariffs if current indications are to be believe
Another, written after a July 16 meeting, relayed a detailed report and analysis of talks between European officials and President Xi, who reportedly compared Trump’s ‘bullying’ of Beijing to a ‘no-rules freestyle boxing match.’
The European diplomats’ account of their private meeting in July with Mr. Xi quoted the Chinese president vowing that his country ‘would not submit to bullying’ from the United States, ‘even if a trade war hurt everybody.’
‘China was not a backward country anymore,’ the European note taker described Mr. Xi as saying.
A third, from March 7, shows Caroline Vicini, the deputy head of the EU mission in Washington, recommending the trade bloc’s diplomats to describe the United States as ‘our most important partner’ even as it challenged Trump ‘in areas where we disagreed with the U.S. (e.g., on climate, trade, Iran nuclear deal).’
The leaked cables also discussed the trade tariffs Trump imposed on China before they were made public.
‘Several well-informed sources in Washington and Beijing believe that Trump will go ahead with the proposed tariffs on Chinese exports to the US, and that the announcement will be made today Friday (US time).
‘It is expected that a new list of products will be published, and for those products which were already in the initial list some months ago the measures will apply immediately,’ one cable on June 15 said.
He announced the tariff the same day.
EMBARRASSINGLY WEAK CYBER SECURITY
The National Security Agency declined to comment on the leak but a source told the Times the EU had been repeatedly warned that its aging systems were becoming increasingly susceptible to cyber attacks.
The attack did not appear to be made with the purpose of exposing the material it uncovered, unlike WikiLeaks which claimed it was acting in the public interest. This means it the motive was purely to spy on the EU.
It also highlights the extremely poor cyber protection of European Union official exchanges, with the chief executive of Area 1 telling the New York Times that there was ‘nothing sophisticated’ about the hack.
‘People talk about sophisticated hackers, but there was nothing really sophisticated about this,’ Oren Falkowitz said.
The cables also include memorandums of conversations with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries that were shared across the European Union, according to the report.
The hackers also infiltrated the networks of the United Nations, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and ministries of foreign affairs and finance worldwide, the report added.
There is no doubt this campaign is connected to the Chinese government
‘After over a decade of experience countering Chinese cyber operations and extensive technical analysis, there is no doubt this campaign is connected to the Chinese government,’ said Blake Darche, one of the Area 1’s experts.
EU officials said they have begun a probe into the leak, which comes with Europe on high alert for malign online activity in the run-up to key parliamentary elections in May next year.
‘The Council Secretariat is aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and is actively investigating the issue,’ the EU Council, which represents member states, said.
‘The Council Secretariat does not comment on allegations nor on matters relating to operational security. The Council Secretariat takes the security of its facilities, including its IT systems, extremely seriously.’
European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said the bloc took any report of hacking its systems ‘extremely seriously’ but refused to comment on the detail of the leak.
‘What is clear is that no institution or country is immune to these kinds of hacks – all communications systems have vulnerabilities,’ he told reporters.
‘We’re constantly dealing with this challenge, upgrading our communication systems to respond to the threats.’