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Justice Department Charges 7 Iranians For Hacking U.S. Banks


The Justice Department has charged seven Iranians with hacking into banks in order to undermine the American financial sector. Authorities say the men worked for companies with ties to the Iranian government. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Three of the most powerful officials in the U.S. justice system appeared on the same stage to unveil the computer hacking indictment. Next to the attorney general, the FBI director and the top federal prosecutor in New York was a wanted poster featuring photos of seven men from Iran. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says they're responsible for hacks that cost American banks tens of millions of dollars.


LORETTA LYNCH: These attacks were relentless. They were systematic, and they were widespread. They threatened our economic well-being and our ability to compete fairly in the global marketplace.

JOHNSON: The Iranian men allegedly used malware to take over computers, turning them into virtual weapons and bombarding servers for financial institutions like Bank of America, PNC and Capital One. Hundreds of thousands of bank customers were locked out of their accounts. In all, the hacking campaign targeted 46 banks between 2011 and mid-2013.

Court papers say at least one of the hackers kept track of his time on the bank disruptions, applying it as credit toward his mandatory military service in Iran. FBI director James Comey says agents from all over the U.S. banded together to identify the culprits. And while they're out of law enforcement reach now, Comey says, that may not always be the case.


JAMES COMEY: The world is small, and our memories are long. We never say never. People often like to travel for vacation or education, and we want them looking over their shoulder.

JOHNSON: Aside from the bank hacking, one of the men allegedly infiltrated the electronic controls of a dam in Rye, N.Y., unauthorized access to systems that cover water levels and flow rates. But federal and local officials say the dam was disconnected from that electronic system at the time. Preet Bharara is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.


PREET BHARARA: Although no actual harm resulted from that infiltration, the potential havoc that such a hack of American infrastructure could wreak is scary to think about.

JOHNSON: The charges against the Iranians represent the third big hacking case this week against defendants tied to foreign governments. On Tuesday, the Justice Department charged members of the Syrian Electronic Army with disrupting federal agencies and media companies, including NPR. Wednesday, a Chinese businessman pleaded guilty to conspiring to hack into American defense contractors and steal secrets about fighter jets. John Carlin leads the national security division at Justice.

JOHN CARLIN: Can we figure out exactly who did it? Can we do so in a way that we can make it public? And can we do so in a way that we can impose consequences through a criminal charge, sanctions or otherwise?

JOHNSON: In an interview with NPR, Carlin says these cases are part of a years' long strategy to train lawyers and investigators to share information and sometimes build criminal cases.

CARLIN: What you saw this week - in a landmark week - is the progress we've made now that we've unleashed those prosecutors and agents. This can't be cost-free. It can't be anonymous anymore. We have to show there's no free pass and we can figure who's on the other end of that keyboard.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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