After Hacking U.S. Personnel Files: Chinese Will Dine With Kerry at Mt. Vernon

By Brittany M. Hughes | June 16, 2015 | 12:22pm EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry after he was released from Massachusetts General Hospital on June 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry said he will meet with Chinese leaders next week for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and then hold “a dinner at Mount Vernon” for them.

Kerry will be hosting the Chinese at Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of George Washington, less than three weeks after the Office of Personnel Management announced that the personnel files of some four million current and former federal employees had been hacked, reportedly by the Chinese.

The secretary of State mentioned his upcoming meetings and dinner with the Chinese at Mount Vernon specifically in response to a question about the administration’s negotiations with Iran that seek to get Iran to agree to restrictions on its nuclear-related activities. The Chinese are one of the P5+1 nations that are working with the administration to negotiate with the Iranians.

“Mr. Secretary, did your absence have any impact on the Iran negotiations? Are you still hopeful about the end of the month timetable [for concluding negotiations]?” a reporter asked Kerry Friday at a question-and-answer session the secretary held after he was released from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was being treated for a broken leg.

“I’m absolutely driving for the end of the month,” Kerry said. “I think it’s critical for a lot of different reasons. And the answer is no, my absence really wasn’t an absence in the sense of I had no plans to be personally involved with my foreign minister counterparts until a week or two from now. Our team is in Vienna now working out very complex annexes, details of this agreement. It’s a tough slog. It’s not easy.

“And I was in touch for an hour and a half today on a secure telephone call as we discussed it,” said Kerry. “That’s not the first in the last few days.”

“I had a long discussion with President Obama about it yesterday,” Kerry said. “And I am absolutely confident.

“I have a major meeting with the Chinese called the … Economic & Security Dialogue,” he said. “We will have Chinese leaders coming to Washington in a week. We’ll have a two-day session with them--very, very in-depth--a dinner at Mount Vernon, and afterwards, I will be leaving to go for the last slog on the Iran talks.”

On Monday, the State Department and the Treasury Department officially announced the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” (S&ED) meeting that Secretary of State Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will host for the Chinese in Washington on June 23-24. This will be the seventh time U.S. and Chinese leaders have met for this meeting.

“The S&ED will focus on addressing the challenges and opportunities that both countries face on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global areas of immediate and long-term economic and strategic interest,” said the State Department.

On June 4, OPM first announced “a cybersecurity incident potentially affecting personnel data for current and former federal employees, including personally identifiable information (PII).”

“As a result of the incident, OPM will send notifications to approximately 4 million individuals whose PII may have been compromised,” the OPM said in a statement.

That same day, citing unnamed “U.S. officials,” The Washington Post reported that the “Chinese state” was responsible for the hack.

“Hackers working for the Chinese state breached the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management in December, U.S. officials said Thursday, and the agency will notify about 4 million current and former federal employees that their personal data may have been compromised,” the Post reported in a story headlined “Chinese breach data of 4 million federal workers.”

In a statement updated on Monday, the OPM reported that it had discovered that “additional systems were compromised.”

“These systems included those that contain information related to the background investigations of current, former, and prospective Federal government employees, as well as other individuals for whom a Federal background investigation was conducted,” OPM said in the statement.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the hackers are believed to have been based in China, and that the breach is “yet another indication of a foreign power probing successfully and focusing on what appears to be data that would identify people with security clearances,” the Associated Press reported on June 4.

According to the Associated Press, the second data breach includes personal information submitted for security clearances.

“In describing a cyberbreach of federal records dramatically worse than first acknowledged, authorities point to Standard Form 86, which applicants are required to complete,” the AP reported Monday. “Applicants also must list contacts and relatives, potentially exposing any foreign relatives of U.S. intelligence employees to coercion. Both the applicant's Social Security number and that of his or her cohabitant are required.”

At 124 pages, Standard Form 86 also includes information needed to obtain a security clearance, including mental illnesses, drug and alcohol use, criminal records, bankruptcies previous government employment and foreign travel history.

"This tells the Chinese the identities of almost everybody who has got a United States security clearance," Joel Brenner, a former top U.S. counterintelligence official, told the AP in the article. "That makes it very hard for any of those people to function as an intelligence officer. The database also tells the Chinese an enormous amount of information about almost everyone with a security clearance. That's a gold mine. It helps you approach and recruit spies."

 During a press briefing on Friday, June 12, White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest confirmed that “potentially, sensitive data about a substantial number of federal employees was breached, or is at least now at risk.”

During a press briefing on June 10, Earnest stated that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scheduled visit to the United States in September will proceed despite concerns over the Chinese cyberhack. He also said the U.S. had not yet identified the perpetrator of the hacking.

“On the OPM breach, why does President Obama plan to go forward with giving the President of China the honor of an official state visit here given not only this breach but the thousands of other cyber-attacks that this administration has documented that China has carried out against us?” a reporter asked during the briefing.

 “The United States has not at this point identified a perpetrator in this latest reported breach of the OPM computer system. So I don't have any new information for you on that. That's something that continues to be under investigation by the FBI,” Earnest responded.

“But as it relates more broadly to China, we have previously on a number of occasions expressed our concern to the Chinese about some of their activities in cyberspace,” he said. “Some of those activities have actually resulted in a Department of Justice indictment of five Chinese military members. So I think that's a pretty clear statement that we have concerns broadly about some of China’s activities in cyberspace.”

Earnest, however, also pointed to U.S.-Chinese cooperation in trying to get a nuclear deal with Iran.

“What’s also true is that there are some areas where we're able to coordinate effectively with the Chinese,” said Earnest. “One example is the Chinese have been active and important participants in the P5+1 talks with Iran. And we value their contribution to that effort, and they have acted constructively, alongside other members of the international community, to try to prevent Iran, through diplomatic talks, from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

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