(Reuters) – The hacking of Google Inc that led the Internet company to briefly pull out of China was orchestrated by two members of China’s top ruling body, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and cited by The New York Times on Saturday.
Citing the cables, the Times said China made repeated and often successful hacking attacks on the U.S. government, private enterprises and Western allies as far back as 2002.
Google, the world’s top Internet search engine, closed its China-based search service in March, two months after it had said it would stop censoring search results in response to what it said was a sophisticated cyber attack that it traced to China and increasing limits on freedom of expression.
The dispute was resolved in July after Google tweaked the way it directs users to an unfiltered search engine.
The Times quoted one cable dated earlier this year as saying: “A well-placed contact claims that the Chinese government coordinated the recent intrusions of Google systems. According to our contact, the closely held operations were directed at the Politburo Standing Committee level.”
The paper added that the cable quoted the contact as saying the hacking of Google “had been coordinated out of the State Council Information Office with the oversight” of two members of the Communist Party’s Politburo: Li Changchun and Zhou Yongkang. It said Zhou is China’s top security official.
But the Times said that in an interview with the paper, the contact cited in the cable, “a Chinese person with family connections to the elite,” denied knowing who directed the attack.
The person said it was one of Li’s subordinates who orchestrated a campaign to force Google to abide by censorship regulations, and Li and Zhou signed off on the plan at several points, the Times said, “But the person did not know whether senior leaders directed the attack.”
The Times did not explain the discrepancy between what the person said in the interview and what was attributed to the person in the cable.
The cables did not make clear how the cyber attacks blamed on China were coordinated, the Times said, and “the cables also appear to contain some suppositions by Chinese and Americans passed along by diplomats.”
According to the cables, at least one previously unreported 2008 attack, which U.S. investigators code-named Byzantine Candor, yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mail messages along with a complete list of user names and passwords from a U.S. government agency.
WikiLeaks started publishing last weekend what it said were more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, giving advance access to the Times and several other publications. Some of the revelations provide embarrassing insights into U.S. foreign policy, while others lend support to the U.S. diplomatic position.