WASHINGTON - US intelligence chief James Clapper said China was the top suspect in the massive hacking of a US government agency that compromised the personnel records of millions of Americans.
In response, Beijing yesterday denounced Mr Clapper's accusations as "absurd logic".
The comments from Mr Clapper, the director of national intelligence, on Thursday were first reported in The Wall Street Journal and marked the first time the Obama administration has publicly accused Beijing of the hacking attacks on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
"You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did," given the difficulty of the intrusion, the Journal quoted Mr Clapper as saying at a Washington intelligence conference.
In a statement, Mr Clapper's office confirmed that he had identified China as a leading suspect, although it said the US government investigation was ongoing.
US officials have previously blamed the attacks on Chinese hackers, though not publicly. White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday declined to comment on any potential suspects.
OPM director Katherine Archuleta told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that personnel data of 4.2 million current and former federal employees was compromised in one security breach and that another attack, targeting those applying for security clearances, had affected millions more.
Some media have reported that as many as 18 million Americans could have been affected.
Mr Clapper's comments came a day after the conclusion of the two-day high-level US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington at which cyber security figured prominently.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday there had been no US "finger- pointing" during those meetings about cyber theft "and whether or not it was actioned by government, or whether it was hackers, or individuals the government has the ability to prosecute".
The Journal cited Mr Clapper as saying the US government and American companies would continue to be targets until policymakers addressed the "lack of deterrents". He said the absence of a US threat to respond to hacking attacks meant Washington had to put its focus on defence instead, the newspaper reported.
China has dismissed as "irresponsible and unscientific" any suggestion that it was behind the hacking. China's senior diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, said after Wednesday's talks that the two countries should work together on cyber security.
Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, responding to Mr Clapper's remarks, said: "We have noticed that the US is still investigating, but feels that China is responsible. This is absurd logic."
"We understand this as showing the US has adopted the presumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence," he added at a regular briefing.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE