Hackers Tied to Russia Hit U.S. Nuclear Agency, 3 States

Hackers Tied to Russia Hit U.S. Nuclear Agency, 3 States illustration of a laptop computer with the word hacking and american and russian flags on the screen (Dreamstime)

William Turton, Michael Riley and Jennifer Jacobs Thursday, 17 December 2020 05:37 PM

The U.S. nuclear weapons agency and at least three states were hacked as part of a suspected Russian cyber attack that struck a number of federal government agencies.

The Energy Department and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains America’s nuclear stockpile, were targeted as part of the larger attack, according to a person familiar with the matter. An ongoing investigation has found the hack didn’t affect “mission-essential national security functions,” Shaylyn Hynes, a Department of Energy spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“At this point, the investigation has found that the malware has been isolated to business networks only,” Hynes said. The hack of the nuclear agency was reported earlier by Politico.

In addition, two people familiar with the broader government investigation into the attack said three states were breached, though they wouldn’t identify the states. A third person familiar with the probe confirmed that states were hacked but didn’t provide a number.

In an advisory Thursday that signaled the widening alarm over the the breach, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said the hackers posed a “grave risk” to federal, state and local governments, as well as critical infrastructure and the private sector. The agency said the attackers demonstrated “sophistication and complex tradecraft.”

While President Donald Trump has yet to publicly address the hack, President-elect Joe Biden issued a statement Thursday on “what appears to be a massive cybersecurity breach affecting potentially thousands of victims, including U.S. companies and federal government entities.”

Biden’s Pledge

“I want to be clear: My administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government — and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office,” Biden said, pledging to impose “substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks.”

Russia has denied any involvement in the attack.

Hynes, the Department of Energy spokeswoman, said that efforts were immediately taken to mitigate the risk from the hack, including disconnecting software “identified as being vulnerable to this attack.”

Although many details are still unclear, the hackers are believed to have gained access to networks by installing malicious code in a widely used software program from SolarWinds Corp., whose customers include government agencies and Fortune 500 companies, according to the company and cybersecurity experts. The departments of Homeland Security, Treasury, Commerce and State were breached, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“This is a patient, well-resourced, and focused adversary that has sustained long duration activity on victim networks,” the cybersecurity agency said in its bulletin.

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