Sanctions Against China For Cyber Attacks Unlikely Ahead of Obama Visit, U.S. Officials Say

Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping / AP

U.S. officials are considering sanctions against entities in China and Russia for cyber attacks waged on commercial targets, though Chinese sources are unlikely to see such punishment before President Xi Jinping visits the White House in September.

Reuters reported that anonymous U.S. officials confirmed Monday that the Obama administration may impose sanctions against individuals and companies in both China and Russia in the wake of embarrassing cyber attacks on government data from sources in both countries.

Final decisions have not been made on the issue, and the officials deemed it unlikely that the U.S. would slap sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies in question before President Obama welcomes Xi Jinping to the White House for a black-tie state dinner because the effect it could have on the meeting.

"The Chinese government staunchly upholds cyber security, firmly opposes and combats all forms of cyber attacks in accordance with law" Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said in a statement in response to the report.

Haiquan said China wants to cooperate with the U.S. and that "groundless speculation, hyping up or accusation is not helpful to solve the problem."

Chinese sources are believed to have been responsible for the massive cyber attack on Office of Personnel Management (OPM) networks that the government agency recently admitted compromised the personal data of 22.1 million people. Those responsible were also linked to a breach of United Airlines computer systems.

According to a July Department of Homeland Security internal report, the OPM hacks are part of a larger-scale operation aimed to steal information for intelligence or military reasons.

Russia, on the other hand, carried out a "sophisticated cyber attack" on the Pentagon computer system used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of July. It affected about 4,000 military and civilian employees of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

However, the unnamed officials said Monday that the potential sanctions would not punish hackers in either country targeting government data but instead those behind attacks on U.S. commercial businesses.

One official explained that the sanctions would be used to cut their subjects off from the U.S. financial system. The source also said that potential targets could include individuals and businesses from other countries.

Republicans have heavily criticized Obama for treating the Chinese president to a dinner at the White House in the wake of the country’s cyber activity, GOP candidate Scott Walker even demanding Obama cancel the meeting.

The White House has insisted that Obama will "no doubt" raise the subject of China’s cybersecurity behavior during Xi Jinping’s September visit.