In Depth

Leaked EU cables: what they reveal

Security firm believes Chinese government behind hack of diplomatic messages discussing Trump, Russia and Iran

Hackers have been monitoring private European Union communications channels for at least three years, intercepting thousands of diplomatic cables, according to a private security firm that claims to have discovered the breach.

Calfornia-based company Area 1 has passed The New York Times more than 1,100 intercepted messages, which include frank private discussions of President Donald Trump, Russian aggression and the Iranian nuclear threat.

The hacked cables “consist of low-level classified documents that were labelled limited and restricted”, say the Times, which notes that the European Union’s top secret documents are transmitted and stored on a separate system.

Nonetheless, the trove “provides insight into Europe’s struggle to understand the political turmoil engulfing three continents”, the newspaper adds.

In one seemingly tongue-in-cheek memo, EU diplomats described a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, as “successful (at least for Putin).”

In another message, Caroline Vicini, deputy head of the EU mission in Washington, shared guidelines for “messaging efforts” to counter the Trump administration’s “negative attitude”, advising that diplomats describe the US as “our most important partner”.

Other cables contain detailed accounts of private conversations with the leaders of China, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

At a meeting in July, China’s President Xi Jinping allegedly compared the Trump administration’s attitude to a “no-rules freestyle boxing match” and warned European officials that his country “would not submit to bullying” from the US, “even if a trade war hurt everybody”.

The intercepted missives also feature discussions about Russian aggression in Crimea, including fears that nuclear warheads may already have been deployed in the contested region.

“If confirmed, such a hack would represent a stunning breach of security in what appears to be an audacious act of espionage,” says CNN.

Area 1 says it has “no doubt” that that hack was directed by the Chinese government, and was probably carried out by the elite intelligence service of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

In a statement to CNN, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the allegations, calling the Times report “suspicious, groundless” and “extremely irresponsible”.

“China stands firmly against criminal hacking activities, and will pursue criminals it according to laws,” a spokesperson said. “If there is any evidence, relative departments will investigate.”

Meanwhile, a former senior official at the US National Security Agency told the Times that the EU “had been warned, repeatedly, that its aging communications system was highly vulnerable to hacking by China, Russia, Iran and other states”.

In a statement on Tuesday night, the EU confirmed it was “aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and is actively investigating the issue”, but did not comment on the alleged contents of the leak.

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