The Twitter and YouTube accounts for the U.S. military command that oversees operations in the Middle East were hacked on Monday by people claiming to be sympathetic toward the Islamic State militant group being targeted in American bombing raids.
Continue Reading Below
U.S. officials acknowledged that the incident was embarrassing but sought to downplay its importance. Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren said the Defense Department "views this as little more than a prank, or as vandalism."
"It's inconvenient, it's an annoyance but in no way is any sensitive or classified information compromised," Warren told a press briefing.
U.S. officials said the U.S. Central Command Twitter account and its YouTube account were suspended after being compromised.
The White House said it was monitoring the extent of the hacking incident.
Two U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the hacking was an embarrassment but that the images posted by the hackers did not appear to include classified information or pose a security threat.
Continue Reading Below
"In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, the CyberCaliphate continues its CyberJihad," the Central Command Twitter feed said after being hacked.
The Twitter feed had several messages from hackers, including one telling American soldiers to "watch your back," and the YouTube account had two videos that appeared to be linked to Islamic State.
Islamic State has taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq. The group's forces have been targeted in ongoing air strikes by the United States and international partners.
The Twitter account published a list of generals and addresses associated with them, titled "Army General Officer Public Roster (by rank) 2 January 2014."
Subsequent posts read, "Pentagon Networks Hacked! China Scenarios" and "Pentagon Networks Hacked. Korean Scenarios."
"We can confirm that the CENTCOM Twitter and YouTube accounts were compromised earlier today. We are taking appropriate measures to address the matter," Central Command said in a statement.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during a press briefing that the hacking was "something that we take seriously." Earnest seemed to downplay the impact of the incident, saying, "There's a pretty significant difference between what is a large data breach and the hacking of a Twitter account."
President Barack Obama separately on Monday announced new proposals aimed at bolstering American cybersecurity in the wake of recent high-profile hacking incidents including one against Sony Pictures Entertainment that U.S. officials have blamed on North Korea.
While it was not clear that any Pentagon network had been compromised, it did appear that the hackers were successful in temporarily gaining control of Central Command’s Twitter feed, which is controlled through a password.
The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, called the incident "severely disturbing."
"Assaults from cyber-jihadists will become more common unless the administration develops a strategy for appropriately responding to these cyberattacks, including those like the North Korea attack against Sony," McCaul said.
REVIEW OF DOCUMENTS
Reuters reviewed some of the documents released by the hackers but could not immediately identify any that appeared to contain information that compromised national security.
Some could easily be found using Google searches, including the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Estimated Impacts of Sequestration-Level Funding,” which is available on a public government website.
Another budget document, “Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System” is a March 2014 document available on the website of the defense department’s comptroller. Another is a draft version of the 2015 appropriations bill for the Defense Department.
After the hacking, the heading of the Central Command Twitter account showed a figure in a black-and-white headscarf and the words "CyberCaliphate" and "I love you ISIS," using an acronym for Islamic State.
Central Command's YouTube account featured videos posted by the U.S. military of air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. It apparently was hacked to add two videos titled "Flames of War ISIS Video" and "O Soldiers of Truth Go Forth."
Several private researchers said such incidents are fairly common.
"While this will probably be described as ‘sophisticated,’ it's really not that difficult to gain access to someone else’s social media or email account," said Michael Smith, chief operating officer of Kronos Advisory, a private intelligence group focused on counterterrorism.
In what proved to be a bit of bad timing, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center chose earlier on Monday to join Twitter for the first time. It made a joke in its first tweet: "Up to 292 followers so far and not hacked yet."
Central Command is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and handles American military operations covering the Middle East and Central Asia. Central Command oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is managing the U.S. air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State has attracted followers internationally who support its hard-line Islamist message. One of the men who carried out the deadly attacks in Paris last week had declared his allegiance to Islamic State.
(By David Alexander and Jim Finkle; Reporting by Ryan McNeill, Phil Stewart, Andrea Shalal, Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool and Toni Reinhold)