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Military expands probe into cyber command amid political wrangling


By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Nov. 20 (Yonhap) -- Military investigators have raided the offices of about 30 cyber warfare officials to expand a probe into their involvement in an alleged online smear campaign, a source familiar with the matter said Wednesday.

The defense ministry's Central Investigation Command has been questioning and raiding the offices of the officials and senior commanders belonging to the 100-member psychological warfare unit of the command.

"About 30 cyber warfare officials and their seniors are currently under investigation," the source said, asking for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. "We will continue to investigate all officials in question."

The focus of the investigation is whether those who posted political messages online acted on orders to sway public opinion ahead of last December's presidential poll or individually expressed their opinions in violation of their obligation to stay neutral.

The defense ministry's internal investigation last month confirmed that four command officials personally posted political writings, but opposition lawmakers have continued to raise fresh allegations that more members were involved in the smear campaign and its link with the state spy agency, which has come under investigation for illegal electioneering.

The latest move is part of efforts to clear out lingering suspicion over the politically hot-button issue, which has taken center stage in parliament.

During Wednesday's parliamentary interpellation session, opposition party lawmakers raised fresh allegations that the defense ministry carried out psychological warfare operations under the order of the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Rep. Kim Kwang-jin of the main opposition Democratic Party cited a former cyber warfare official to claim that the cyber command daily reported its activities to the NIS and the presidential office, indicating that it was a larger online smear campaign scheme.

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, however, said that the cyber command did not receive orders from the NIS and it did not report daily to the presidential office on its activities.

In regard to the allegation that the cyber command submitted the so-called "black book" to the NIS and the presidential office to report their online smear campaign activities, military officials said the report is aimed at providing information on North Korea's cyber threat.

"(The black book) contains hacking attempts by North Korea and the latest status of North Korean websites," a senior ministry official spoke on the condition of anonymity. "About 50 copies are distributed to the several government organizations, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defense ministry, the presidential office's emergency response team, and it is not classified."

Meanwhile, ruling party lawmakers urged the opposition to stop politicking over the cyber command, stressing the secretive unit's role focused on fending off North Korea's hacking attempts and psychological warfare in cyberspace.

Rep. Yoo Ki-june of the ruling Saenuri Party claimed that only a small portion of the messages posted on the social networking sites by cyber warfare officials were related to the presidential election, with some of them being even critical of the ruling party and the government.

"Only 3.6 percent of the SNS messages by cyber warfare officials were related to politics, while 1.3 percent of them linked to the presidential race. Among them, there were postings that supported the opposition party and criticized the government and the ruling party," Yoo said. "It is illogical to view their activities as systematic election interference."

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