Barr: FBI probing if foreign gov’t behind HHS cyber incident

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr vowed in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday that there would be swift and severe action if a foreign government is behind disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading fear in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic or a denial of service attack on the networks of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Our primary role right now is to investigate,” Barr said. “The FBI is very active, trying to determine who is responsible for these things.”

U.S. national security officials said Monday there had been a “cyber incident” involving the computer networks of the Health and Human Services Department, but the networks were operating normally. They didn’t detail the scope of the incident, but HHS Secretary Alex Azar later said the networks were not penetrated and that the department has taken strong defensive action.

A denial of service attack occurs when a perpetrator trying to make a network unavailable to its intended user temporarily disrupts internet connections.

It came just days after federal officials began confronting what they said was a deliberate effort by a foreign entity to sow fears of a nationwide quarantine amid the virus outbreak. Agencies took co-ordinated action Sunday evening to deny that any such plans were put in place, as they tried to calm a nation already on edge by disruptions to daily life caused by the coronavirus.

Barr told the AP the federal government would take action against anyone who was trying to take advantage of the crisis or against foreign governments that could be trying to spread misinformation and stoke fear or slow down the U.S. response to the virus. He didn’t speculate which government may be behind it.

“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 said. “So, if it is another country doing this, I’m sure the ramifications will be severe.”

Rumours about the government’s response to the spreading virus have circulated online for weeks, prompting authorities in several states to urge residents to seek out trusted sources in government and news. Barr said he had not been involved in any conversations and wasn’t aware of any plans for a potential national quarantine.

He said there had been “increasing indications of people trying to take advantage of the crisis,” including reports of people selling fake test kits and phoney cures.

On Monday, Barr directed U.S. attorneys across the U.S. to prioritize prosecuting all “criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.” In a memo, he warned that the Justice Department had seen reports of people selling fake cures for the coronavirus, phishing emails posing as official notices from the CDC and the World Health Organization and malware inserted in apps designed to track the spread of the virus. Those cases remain under investigation, Barr said.

“Our primary role is really to police the market and make sure people are not taking advantage,” he said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 180,000 people and left more than 7,000 people dead. In the United States, there have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases and scores of deaths.


The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Michael Balsamo, The Associated Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Many parents want school back to normal in September

More than 66,000 parents respond to survey

Trudeau balks at Trump’s suggestion to readmit Russia to G7

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is rejecting Donald Trump’s latest proposal… Continue reading

Solidarity together: Central Albertans protest in Red Deer against racism

More than 100 central Albertans showed up at Red Deer City Hall… Continue reading

Sylvan Lake RCMP put out call to help find missing man

Vehicle found in Rocky Mountain House area

Feelings of guilt are behind America’s racial anguish

It’s been a bad week in the United States: six nights of… Continue reading

Canada’s Olympic, Paralympic athletes return to sport with help of $5 million

TORONTO — Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes will return to sport with… Continue reading

MLS players agree to concessions to return to action at Orlando tournament

TORONTO — MLS players have approved taking part in a summer tournament… Continue reading

Ricky Martin makes ‘Pausa’ to channel newly found anxiety

NEW YORK — The world paused and for the first time in… Continue reading

A superhero kid with autism shines in new PBS Kids’ series

NEW YORK — There’s a new crop of superheroes coming to our… Continue reading

SpaceX’s historic encore: Astronauts arrive at space station

SpaceX Dragon capsule pulled up to the station and docked automatically

Ottawa pledges millions to promote holiday travel in Canada during pandemic

Funding announced include $30 million originally earmarked for attracting foreign visitors

Most Read