Attorney General William Barr vowed there would be “severe” consequences if a foreign country was behind the cyberattack against the Health and Human Services Department’s website on Sunday or behind the false coronavirus rumors swirling in recent days.
The HHS website was hit by a denial-of-service cyberattack on Sunday night, apparently designed to disrupt efforts to combat the spread of the growing COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
“When you’re dealing with something like a denial-of-service attack on HHS during a pandemic, that’s a very grave action for another country to take,” Barr told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “So, if it is another country doing this, I’m sure the ramifications will be severe.”
Barr, “Our primary role right now is to investigate” and that “the FBI is very active trying to determine who is responsible for these things.”
The attorney didn’t take a guess on which foreign nation might be responsible.
U.S. officials told the Associated Press the Trump administration alleges a foreign disinformation campaign aimed at spreading fear in the U.S. during the pandemic, but they did not name the foreign entity they believe to be responsible.
During a White House news conference on Monday, President Trump said, “It could be that you have some foreign groups that are playing games.”
HHS Secretary Alex Azar said, “Fortunately, we have extremely strong barriers.” He added: “We had no penetration into our networks. We had no degradation of the functioning of our networks. We had no limitation of our capacity for people to telework.”
As of late Tuesday night, there were 197,126 confirmed coronavirus cases around the world and at least 7,905 deaths tied to the infection, according to Johns Hopkins University. There have been 81,061 confirmed cases in China and 3,230 confirmed deaths. In the U.S., there were 6,362 cases, which have resulted in 108 deaths.
Trump declared a national emergency last week, but the National Security Council sent out a tweet late Sunday denying rumors swirling on social media that the federal government was about to impose a nationwide quarantine during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE,” the NSC’s account said. “There is no national lockdown. The CDC has and will continue to post the latest guidance on #COVID19. #coronavirus.”
Barr said he wasn’t aware of any plans for a national quarantine.
The attorney general instructed every U.S. attorney nationwide on Monday “to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of all criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.” Barr pointed to individuals and businesses “selling fake cures for COVID-19 online and engaging in other forms of fraud” as well as phishing emails from fraudsters posing as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also warned about cybercriminals inserting malware onto mobile apps designed to track the spread of the virus.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said on Monday, “We’re looking into that, the FBI is looking into it, the NSA and other agencies are taking a look at that, and we’re going to figure it out.”
“It was a serious attack, but, fortunately, the HHS website and HHS computer systems are running … and the attack was repelled,” O’Brien told Fox Business. “But it was a serious thing, and I want to make it clear to our adversaries and those who would do America harm: We’ll figure out who was behind it, and there will be appropriate consequences.”
Also on Monday, the State Department condemned China for blaming the U.S. for the coronavirus outbreak during a call between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Chinese Communist Party, Yang Jiechi.
“The secretary stressed that this is not the time to spread disinformation and outlandish rumors but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
“As a global crisis, COVID-19 should be an area of cooperation between nations,” Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah tweeted last week. “Instead, the Communist Party of China has chosen to promulgate false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members. #ChinaPropaganda.”
The intelligence community warned Congress last week during an election security briefing that foreign disinformation efforts are “not a Russia-only problem” while noting that “Beijing continues to promote policies that are in line with China’s interests.”