By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) -- The defense ministry said Tuesday it has launched a raid on the cyber warfare command's headquarters and senior commanders to look into whether the military was involved in an alleged smear campaign during last year's presidential election.
Four officials at the ministry's Cyber Warfare Command have been under an internal investigation for a similar online smear campaign by the state spy agency against the main opposition Democratic Party's candidate, Moon Jae-in, ahead of the election last December.
Announcing an interim result of the investigation, the ministry said three civilian employees and one noncommissioned officer posted political messages on their Twitter accounts and blogs in violation of their obligation to stay political neutral. But it denied any role behind the alleged illegal electioneering.
"The four members expressed their personal opinions and said they didn't act on orders (from the ministry)," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said. "The ministry's Criminal Investigation Command has launched a raid into the cyber command headquarters and senior officials to look into allegations whether they played a role."
The investigation team will confiscate documents and computer files of other members and senior officials as part of a full-fledged investigation, Kim said.
The defense ministry set up the 400-member special unit in 2010 as part of efforts to expand the military's cyber warfare capability to counter hacking threats from North Korea.
The latest admission by the defense officials, along with allegations surrounding the National Intelligence Service, has cast doubts over the military's supposed political neutrality.
The cyber command's scandal comes at a time when the ruling and opposition parties have been locked in a heated political showdown for months over allegations the National Intelligence Service intervened in the presidential election.
The ministry's announcement fell short of removing all suspicions surrounding the secret unit tasked with fending off cyber threats from North Korea.
During a parliamentary audit on Tuesday, opposition lawmakers criticized the cyber command for dealing with domestic politics rather than focusing all of its energy on countering North Korean cyber threats.
Rep. Baek Gun-ki of the Democratic Party (DP) accused the psychological cyber warfare team of trying to sway South Korean voters, going beyond its core mission of defending against the Internet-deprived communist nation.
"North Korea is the only country that was not hacked by the U.S. National Security Agency as it is isolated from the world's network," Baek said, referring to the American spy agency under attack for spying on foreign government and company officials.
"It is questionable who was the target of the cyber command's psychological warfare team, leading to suspicions that it focused primarily on South Koreans."
Ruling party lawmakers warned against the opposition move to amplify illegal electioneering allegations by launching a special investigation led by state prosecutors.
"The Democratic Party should acknowledge the fact that it is causing serious damage to the psychological warfare operations and stop politicking that could hurt the military operations," seven members of the parliamentary defense committee said in a statement. "The DP should also consider the public consensus over the individual's freedom of expression in online space."
Military officials expressed embarrassment over the latest scandal surrounding the covert command, most of whose information, including its organization, is classified.
An audit was held on the cyber command last week for the first time since its establishment, but its commander stubbornly refused to answer most questions by lawmakers citing confidential military information.
Spokesman Kim echoed the concern over revealing too much information on the special unit, an integral part of future military strategy.
"Even now, the Cyber Warfare Command is conducting missions to counter North Korean threats," Kim said. "If the command's activities are revealed, it could damage national security. North Korea could use (this information) to cause serious damage (to South Korea)."
The command has reported a total of 6,392 hacking attempts into the military network and websites of related agencies since its establishment, according to a report.
Following massive attacks into major broadcasters and banks in March, the ministry announced its plan to gradually increase cyber warfare forces to more than 1,000 to enhance its capabilities.
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