Hacked cables show EU worries over Russia, China, Trump

Networks of UN and ministries of foreign affairs and finance worldwide also infiltrated

WASHINGTON • Hackers infiltrated the European Union's diplomatic communications network for years, downloading thousands of cables that reveal concerns about an unpredictable Trump administration in the United States and struggles to deal with Russia and China and the risk that Iran would revive its nuclear programme.

In one cable, European diplomats described a meeting between US President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Helsinki as "successful (at least for Putin)". Another cable, written after a July 16 meeting, relayed a detailed report and analysis of a discussion between European officials and President Xi Jinping of China, who was quoted comparing Mr Trump's "bullying" of Beijing to a "no-rules freestyle boxing match".

The techniques that the hackers deployed over a three-year period resembled those long used by an elite unit of China's People's Liberation Army. The cables were copied from the secure network and posted to an open Internet site that the hackers set up in the course of their attack, according to Area 1, the firm that discovered the breach. Area 1, founded by three former officials of the National Security Agency, made more than 1,100 of the hacked EU cables available to The New York Times.

The White House National Security Council did not have an immediate comment on Tuesday.

The compromised material provides insight into Europe's struggle to understand the political turmoil engulfing three continents. It includes memorandums of conversations with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries that were shared across the European Union.

But it also revealed the huge appetite by hackers to sweep up even the most obscure details of international negotiations.

The cyber intruders also infiltrated the networks of the United Nations, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) and ministries of foreign affairs and finance worldwide. The hack of the AFL-CIO focused on issues surrounding the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that excluded Beijing.

Part of the UN material focuses on months in 2016, when North Korea was actively launching missiles, and appears to include references to private meetings of the world body's secretary-general and his deputies with Asian leaders.

Some of the more than 100 organisations and institutions were targeted years ago. But many were not aware of the breach until a few days ago, when some were alerted by Area 1.

The cables include extensive reports by European diplomats of Russia's moves to undermine Ukraine, including a warning Feb 8 that Crimea, which Moscow annexed four years ago, had been turned into a "hot zone where nuclear warheads might have already been deployed". US officials say they have not seen evidence of nuclear warheads in Crimea.

The European diplomats' account of their private meeting in July with Mr Xi quoted the Chinese President vowing that his country "would not submit to bullying" from the United States, "even if a trade war hurts everybody".

"China was not a backward country any more," the European note-taker described Mr Xi as saying.

In their conversations with US officials after the Helsinki meeting in July, EU diplomats described efforts by the White House to engage in damage control after Mr Trump had gone off-script during a joint news conference with Mr Putin.

Mr Trump appeared to agree to allow Russians to question former US diplomats in exchange for the US interrogation of Russians who had been indicted by Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel. According to a July 20 document describing their private exchanges, White House officials assured the Europeans that Mr Trump's agreement would be "nipped down" to prevent the questioning of Americans.

In a statement on Tuesday night, the European Union's secretariat issued a statement saying it "is aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and is actively investigating the issue". But it seemed to avoid the issues raised by the disclosure, saying it "does not comment on allegations nor on matters relating to operational security".

The trove of European cables is reminiscent of the WikiLeaks publication of 250,000 State Department cables in 2010. But they are not as extensive and consist of low-level classified documents that were labelled limited and restricted.

The more secretive communications - including a level known as "tres secret" - were kept on a separate system that is being upgraded and replaced, according to European officials. And cables that focused on decisions about world powers' 2015 nuclear deal with Iran - from which Mr Trump withdrew the United States in May - are walled off from the Internet in an entirely different system.

Unlike WikiLeaks in 2010 or the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic Party leaders in 2016, the cyber attack on the EU made no effort to publish the stolen material.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'Hacked cables show EU worries over Russia, China, Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe