Sharyl Attkisson’s computer: What could have prompted breaches?

Sharyl Attkisson

Sharyl Attkisson (John P. Filo/CBS News)

CBS News today issued a statement answering some questions regarding the computer breaches that reporter Sharyl Attkisson alleged in May. According to the network’s statement, the unauthorized incursions took place “on multiple occasions late in 2012″; The Post’s Paul Farhi reports today that they took place in December.

“People should be disturbed that a reporter would be spied on and intimidated this way,” Attkisson told Farhi. “I do feel that this was an attempt to make me feel intimidated.” And this: “I assume someone wanted to see what I was working on.”

With the aid of CBSNews.com archives, we can now see precisely what Attkisson was working on. Here’s a sampling of her December output:

• Will performance-based pay improve education? (Dec. 1)

• A look at the merits of the buy-American movement. (Dec. 2)

• U.S. security operators fired no shots in Benghazi response. (Dec. 11)

• Oil may be leaking from Deepwater Horizon site. (Dec. 13)

• BP wrapping up a search for oil leaks. (Dec. 17)

• Family of slain border patrol agent Brian Terry sues ATF officials. (Dec. 17)

• Some mystery substance leaking from the BP Underwater Horizon installation. (Dec. 18)

• Guns found near a Mexico cartel shootout were connected to the federal Fast & Furious program. (Dec. 18)

As the Erik Wemple Blog has previously reported, a list of possible Attkisson-computer intruders includes viruses, criminals, run-of-the-mill hackers and governments, both foreign and domestic. And that’s not an exhaustive list. Some folks on Twitter have weighed in with their suspicions:

Back in May, Attkisson did little to suppress such chatter. When she revealed her computer-sovereignty issues in a radio interview, she came just shy of asserting government wrongdoing. The host of a Philadelphia radio show asked her whether the problems were related to the experience of James Rosen, the Fox News reporter whose private e-mail had been the target of a search warrant. Attkisson responded, “Well, I don’t know details of his — I only know what I’ve read, but I think there could be some relationship between these types of things and what’s happened to me.” (The Justice Department insists: “To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never compromised Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer, or other media device she may own or use.”)

Is there any parallel between Attkisson’s work and the stories that prompted the Obama administration’s six leak investigations? Let the reader judge:

Attkisson’s work of late has been heavy on reconstructing the events of Benghazi, Fast & Furious and various national issues, as the list above demonstrates.

Leak investigations have focused on surveillance of Israeli diplomats, an NSA surveillance program, a huge dump of classified documents, a leak revealing U.S. intelligence sources in North Korea, a leak relating to efforts to disrupt the alleged Iranian nuclear program and the disclosure of the name of a covert operative.

Perhaps the most powerful refutation of government involvement is the nature of the intrusion. To judge from the CBS News statement, we’re talking about a top-rate hacking expedition: “This party also used sophisticated methods to remove all possible indications of unauthorized activity, and alter system times to cause further confusion,” reads a portion of today’s statement.

One question on the logic here: If all “possible indications of unauthorized activity” were removed, how do we know about this whole thing? (CBS News hasn’t yet responded to an inquiry from the Erik Wemple Blog about the name of the computer security firm that inspected Attkisson’s equipment.) Second point: Clearly the hacker did indeed leave some tracks, tipping off Attkisson to the intrusions. Is that level of ineptitude consistent with the work of one of the world’s leading surveillance states?

That’s where Cedric Leighton comes in. He’s a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a former deputy training director at the National Security Agency (NSA), not to mention founder and president of Cedric Leighton Associates. When asked about caliber of hacking in l’affaire Attkisson, Leighton replied, “This is a case where whoever was doing it was knowledgeable about certain aspects of the IT infrastructure but they weren’t as good as they needed to be to obscure the trail.” Referring to U.S. government cybersleuths, he says, “They don’t leave droppings behind like animals in the wild….It would be very surprising if a government person were involved in this unless they wanted her to know that they were there.”

As we’ve contended before: If this is the work of the U.S. government, the scandals that we’ve been chewing over for the past month or so will look like meritorious conduct. Not only would it mark a fresh new level of overreach and possible criminality, but it would also expose a junior-varsity computer-hacking operation in the halls of government.

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CBS News confirms multiple breaches of Sharyl Attkisson's computer