China is "the leading suspect" in the pair of major breaches that compromised deeply personal data for millions of federal employees, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Clapper made the comments Thursday at the GeoInt Symposium, an intelligence conference in Washington, where a moderator asked if he could name China as the perpetrator of the breaches at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
"I mean, that's the leading suspect," Clapper replied. Clapper is the first administration official to name China publicly, though several other anonymous officials had previously told media outlets China was the top suspect.
Clapper had said earlier in his talk: "You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don't think we'd hesitate for a minute."
OPM, which screens and hires federal workers, revealed on June 4 that it had discovered a cyberattack that compromised data for 4.2 million current and former federal employees. On June 12 OPM disclosed a second attack that targeted information for millions more Americans who applied for security clearances.
Major breaches like those will continue unless the government adopts a "psychology of deterrence," Clapper warned, adding that "what we must do in the meantime is pay more attention to defense."
Earlier on Thursday at a Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., pushed OPM director Katherine Archuleta about China's purported role in the attacks. Archuleta declined to name China or any other entity as the perpetrator, saying OPM doesn't deal in attribution.