04/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Theft of Climate Scientists' Emails was a Highly Sophisticated Job, British Scientist Says

Sir David King, the UK’s former chief scientist, strongly believes that the theft of hundreds of emails from the Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia was carried out by highly-paid professionals, perhaps a foreign intelligence agency, and was deliberately designed to destabilize the Copenhagen climate talks last December.

The highly sophisticated hacking operation involved stealing more than 1,000 emails and some 2,000 documents from a backup server at the University, which would have been difficult to access remotely. 

According to The Independent newspaper, King believes the hack “was carried out by a team of skilled professionals, either on behalf of a foreign government or at the behest of anti-climate change lobbyists in the United States.” 

"It was a sophisticated and expensive operation. In terms of the expense, there is the American lobby system which is a very likely source of finance. Right now, the American lobbyists are a very likely source of finance for this, so the finger must point to them," he said.

King, who was Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser for seven years until 2007, said that the hacking and selective leaking of the CRU emails bore all the hallmarks of a coordinated intelligence operation and noted the timing of their release just before the Copenhagen climate conference.

“That [timing] wasn't a coincidence," King believes.  Climate skeptics and deniers have used the stolen emails - private discussions between climate scientists going back 13 years - to claim that global warming is a hoax.

King told The Independent that only “a sophisticated intelligence operation is capable of yielding the sort of results we've seen here."

"Quite simply, it's the sophistication of the operation. I know there's a possibility that they had a very good hacker working for these people, but it was an extraordinarily sophisticated operation. There are several bodies of people who could do this sort of work. These are national intelligence agencies and it seems to me that it was the work of such a group of people," he said.

Since the hackers released only a small fraction of the total number of emails exchanged between the scientists during the targeted period between 1996 to 2009, King believes the hackers selected for the most incriminating phrases relating to possible scientific misconduct and breaches of the Freedom of Information Act.

The growing threat of international cyber-crime is a major concern of governments worldwide, as The Independent article notes. 

Given the failure of the media to spend even a moment questioning who was behind the East Anglia CRU hack job, the perpetrator may never be identified.  But this episode clearly demonstrates that governments aren’t the only targets that should be concerned with cyber-attacks. 

The CRU hack did not happen in isolation.  There have been other confirmed attempts to infiltrate climate scientists’ offices, such as the attempt at the University of Victoria in Canada, and there may well be more attempts in the future, as the U.S. Congress and the international community continue to work on policy solutions to address climate change.

Whether the media will start paying attention to this emerging threat to scientific openness and transparency remains to be seen.