Unknown hackers took down the official newspaper of the Chinese military earlier this month, highlighting the covert cyber war that has been underway for years by China’s military and foreign states, according to U.S. officials.
The English-language website of the military newspaper PLA Daily was shut down May 31 and users who went to the site were re-directed to "Poker City," an online gambling website based in Shanghai, said officials familiar with intelligence reports of the incident.
The hacking took place days before the annual observance of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on unarmed protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that killed scores. The timing suggested that the hacker attack was meant to send a signal to the Chinese military on the anniversary.
Public discussion of the Tiananmen massacre remains officially forbidden, and heavy censorship by Chinese authorities was imposed in the days before and after June 4.
According to the officials, the PLA newspaper was shut down for about three days before service was restored June 3.
U.S. officials said the disruption did not affect the Chinese-language version of the military newspaper.
The current edition of the website features a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama at their meeting during the recent summit in Mexico.
The incident came less than a month after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met at the Pentagon with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie, who said the two militaries would cooperate on cyber defenses.
Liang disputed the idea that China was engaged in massive cyber attacks and intelligence gathering, and noted that not all the suspected China-origin attacks could be traced back to China.
Liang said it was important for all nations to focus on cyber security and noted that in his discussions with Panetta the two defense chiefs talked about cooperating in strengthening cyber security.
Panetta told reporters at a press conference with Liang that both countries have advanced technology relevant to cyber warfare.
"It’s true, as the general pointed out, that we agreed that obviously there are other countries, there are hackers, there are others that are involved in some of the attacks that both of our countries receive," Panetta said.
"But because the United States and China have developed technological capabilities in this arena, it's extremely important that we work together to develop ways to avoid any miscalculation or misperception that could lead to crisis in this area," he said.
Classified State Department cables disclosed that Chinese computer hackers linked to the PLA conducted a widespread campaign of electronic espionage from 2003 until at least 2009. The campaign pilfered large amounts of data from U.S. government and private sector networks.
The documents revealed that the Chinese military’s Chengdu Military Region First Technical Reconnaissance Bureau is a major cyber warfare and intelligence-gathering unit. One document described the activities of Chinese hackers as a "clandestine ‘cyber-spying’ network [that] may in fact be a state-sponsored intelligence-gathering operation."