The Biden administration is hunting for malicious computer code it believes China has hidden deep inside the networks controlling power grids, communications systems, and water supplies that feed military bases in the United States and around the world, according to American military, intelligence, and national security officials.
The discovery of the malware has raised fears that Chinese hackers, probably working for the People’s Liberation Army, have inserted code designed to disrupt U.S. military operations in the event of a conflict, including if Beijing moves against Taiwan in coming years.
The malware, one congressional official said, was essentially “a ticking time bomb” that could give China the power to interrupt or slow American military deployments or resupply operations by cutting off power, water, and communications to U.S. military bases.
But its impact could be far broader, because that same infrastructure often supplies the houses and businesses of ordinary Americans, according to U.S. officials. The first public hints of the malware campaign began to emerge in late May, when Microsoft said it had detected mysterious computer code in telecommunications systems in Guam, the Pacific island with a vast American air base, and elsewhere in the United States.
More than a dozen U.S. officials and industry experts said in interviews over the past two months that the Chinese effort predated the May report by at least a year, and that the U.S. government’s effort to hunt down the code, and eradicate it, has been underway for some time. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential and in some cases classified assessments.
They say the Chinese effort appears more widespread — in the United States and at American facilities abroad — than they had initially realized. But officials acknowledge that they do not know the full extent of the code’s presence in networks around the world.
The discovery of the malware has touched off a series of Situation Room meetings in the White House in recent months, as senior officials from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the Homeland Security Department and the nation’s spy agencies attempt to understand the scope of the problem and plot a response.
Biden administration officials have begun to brief members of Congress, some state governors and utility companies about the findings, and confirmed some conclusions about the operation in interviews with The New York Times.
There is a debate inside the administration over whether the goal of the operation is primarily aimed at disrupting the military, or at civilian life more broadly in the event of a conflict. But officials say that the initial searches for the code have focused first on areas with a high concentration of American military bases.
In response to questions from The Times, the White House issued a statement Friday night that made no reference to China or the military bases.
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