- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Obama administration announced Friday that it would retaliate against China for the theft of more than 20 million Americans’ personal information in a massive hack of the Office of Personnel Management.

The specific response is still being debated and may not be determined for weeks to come as officials formulate a plan that won’t provoke a counter cyberattack, The New York Times reported.

The decision to retaliate is a surprising shift for the White House, which had previously suggested it might not even publicly name China as the culprit in the attacks.

“One of the conclusions we’ve reached is that we need to be a bit more public about our responses, and one reason is deterrence,” a senior administration official involved in the debate told The Times. “We need to disrupt and deter what our adversaries are doing in cyberspace, and that means you need a full range of tools to tailor a response.”

President Obama has received enormous pressure to respond to the attacks, which are considered to be the largest ever digital theft of government information.

“What we’re seeing with these repeated hacks and repeated intrusions is that building your defense is not enough in and of itself,” Rep. Adam Schiff, of California and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters shortly after the hacks were first revealed. “There also has to be a deterrent.”

SEE ALSO: China stole data from 600 American cyber targets, says NSA

In a recent interview, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, broke slightly from the administration’s reserved position, saying that not responding to the hack could inspire bolder attacks in the future.

“I think we’ll see a progression and expansion of that envelope until such times as we create both the substance and the psychology of deterrents,” he said.

It is not clear what actions the administration will take in response to the attack. The administration reportedly explored economic sanctions, similar to those levied on North Korea after the East Asian regime was blamed for the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But officials say such sanctions wouldn’t be as effective in China because Beijing has leverage to impose counter-sanctions against major American businesses operating in the country, The Times reported.

The Justice Department is reportedly exploring criminal charges against individuals or organizations behind the OPM hacks.

However, the U.S. generally tries to respond to intelligence with counterintelligence, not criminal charges, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report on the OPM hacks.

But officials could look into other retaliation tactics merited by the sheer size and scope of the OPM hack.

“This is one of those cases where you have to ask, ‘Does the size of the operation change the nature of it?’ ” a senior intelligence official told The Times. “Clearly, it does.”

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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