US intelligence services conducted 231 offensive cyber operations in 2011, the latest leaked documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal.
The leaked US intelligence budget documents also reveal a $652m project – codenamed "Genie" – in which US spy agency hackers break into foreign computer networks, according to the Washington Post.
According to the paper, the documents and interviews with former US officials reveal a campaign of computer intrusions far broader and more aggressive than previously understood.
By the end of 2013, Genie is projected to control at least 85,000 spy code implants in strategically chosen machines around the world – four times the number available in 2008 – the documents show.
William Lynn, former deputy defense secretary, told the paper that the US policy debate has moved so that offensive options in cyber space are more prominent.
“There’s more of a case made now that offensive cyber options can be an important element in deterring certain adversaries,” he said.
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In October 2012, defense secretary Leon Panetta admitted that the US was developing a cyber offensive capability.
The US defence department had developed tools to trace attackers, he said, and a cyber strike force that could conduct operations via computer networks.
The latest leaked documents show that of the 231 offensive operations conducted in 2011, nearly three-quarters were against top-priority targets, which former officials say includes adversaries such as Iran, Russia, China and North Korea.
According to a presidential directive issued in October 2012, offensive cyber operations are defined as activities intended to manipulate, disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy information resident in computers or computer networks, or the computers and networks themselves.
According to the Washington Post, US intelligence services make routine use of government-constructed malware around the globe that differs little in function from the advanced persistent threats (APTs) that US officials attribute to China.
The paper said an unnamed US National Security Agency (NSA) spokesman had confirmed that the Defense Department does engage in computer network exploitation, but said it does not engage in economic espionage.
Snowden, a former NSA contractor, was granted temporary asylum in Russia on 1 August. He is wanted in the US on espionage charges linked to media disclosures about US surveillance programmes.