WASHINGTON — If the Chinese are behind the massive hacks against the federal Office of Personnel Management, they have a wealth of information to use in counterintelligence efforts against the United States, former covert CIA agent Valerie Plame told USA TODAY on Monday.
"Information is power," said Plame, who worked to stop the spread of nuclear weapons as a CIA agent and serves on the advisory board for Global Data Sentinel, a cyber security firm.
"When you have access to information about the friends, family members and health issues of someone who works for the U.S. government, you can use that to try to get close to that person and gather intelligence," she said. "To my mind, the OPM breach is absolutely catastrophic for our national security."
OPM says second hack affected more than 21M Americans
The hack of background check records stored in the OPM's systems compromised the data of about 21.5 million people, OPM officials revealed this month. The victims of that hack — one of two recently revealed at the agency — include 19.7 million people who applied for background investigations needed for jobs requiring a security clearance. It also affected 1.8 million others — mainly spouses and cohabitants of the applicants.
The CIA keeps the background check files of its employees separate from the OPM in its own system, Plame said. That doesn't mean that no undercover CIA agents had their information compromised, she said. An undercover CIA operative may have a cover job working for the State Department or other government agency that uses the OPM system, according to Plame.
"It's hard enough to build and maintain a really good cover," Plame said. "This has made it multiple times more difficult."
Plame knows from experience.
Twelve years ago, former Washington Post columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent using information he obtained from officials in the administration of then-President George W. Bush. Plame and her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, said Plame was exposed in retaliation for Wilson's criticism of Bush's rationale for going to war with Iraq.
"To say this is creating a huge headache is an understatement, truly," Plame said of the OPM hacks. "They (the hackers) are going to be able to exploit this data for decades."
The CIA had no comment Monday about the hacks.
Although the Obama administration has not publicly blamed anyone for the OPM hacks, officials have said privately that they believe the attacks came from China. The Chinese government has denied any involvement.
If China was the source of the attacks, it may try to exploit the family ties of U.S. government employees with relatives in China to gain access to classified information, Plame said.
Background check reports include information about an employee's friends and relatives, both in the USA and abroad.
"Targeting those ties is a tactic that's been used time and again by lots of governments," Plame said. "Now it's just so much easier because information about those ties is being served up on a silver platter."
After resigning from the CIA, Plame has become an author and an advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons. She said she joined the advisory board of Global Data Sentinel in May because she sees cyber security as an increasingly important national security issue.
"This is a whole new era," Plame said. "Everything really is connected now. I do think about ... the ability of (hackers) to get into and manipulate our secure national laboratories or even our Minuteman (nuclear weapons) silos. ... Cyber security is the new front."