Some of Obama’s email correspondence were taken by Russian hackers last year in an unprecedented breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system. The breach was far more intrusive then was publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.
The hackers also gained access deep into the State Department’s unclassified system, but do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Obama’s personal BlackBerry.
Earlier this month, officials at the White House said that the hacking had not damaged its systems and that, while elements had been shut down to mitigate the effects of the attack, everything had been restored.
The hackers obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House who Obama regularly communicated with. According to officials briefed on the investigation, from those accounts, they reached emails that the president had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation.
Officials conceded that the unclassified system regularly contains a lot of information that is considered highly sensitive such as schedules, email exchanges with ambassadors and diplomats, discussions of pending personnel moves and legislation, and, without a doubt, some debate about policies and state issues.
The New York Times reported that Senior White House officials have known for months about the depth of the intrusion.
“This has been one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen,” said one senior American official briefed on the investigation.
Others confirmed that the White House intrusion was viewed as so serious that officials met on a nearly daily basis for several weeks after it was discovered. “It’s the Russian angle to this that’s particularly worrisome,” another senior official said.
When asked about the investigation’s findings, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said, “We’ll decline to comment.” The White House has also declined to provide any explanations about how the breach was handled, though the State Department has been more candid about what kind of systems were hit and what it has done since to improve security. A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment.
The discovery of the hacking in October led to a partial shutdown of the White House email system. The hackers appear to have been evicted from the White House systems by the end of October. But they continued to plague the State Department, whose system is much more far-flung. The disruptions were so severe that during the Iranian nuclear negotiations in Vienna in November, officials needed to distribute personal email accounts, to one another and to some reporters, to maintain contact.
The Russian hackers were reportedly able to access the email archives of people that Obama regularly emailed. They are thought to have ties to Kremlin government of President Vladimir Putin.