Roughly three and a half years after Russian election interference left an indelible mark on the 2016 presidential contest, there is a growing sense of unease among top U.S. officials that the Chinese Communist Party seeks to disrupt the 2020 election, same as Moscow and others.
Following last week’s revelation by National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina that the U.S. intelligence community is most concerned about China, Russia, and Iran seeking to meddle in November’s election and FBI Director Christopher Wray reportedly warning the Senate Intelligence Committee this week about the Chinese government’s growing ability to interference in U.S. elections, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that Beijing has not just the capability but the intention of conducting influence operations inside the United States.
Sen. Marco Rubio pressed Pompeo about the Chinese government’s actions inside the U.S., with the Florida Republican pointing to Chinese “influence efforts” targeting a number of countries. “If China ever decided they want to do those kinds of things to us, would you assess they have the capability to conduct disinformation campaigns, to pressure American political figures, potentially even members of Congress, the way we’ve seen them do in Taiwan and Australia and in other places?” Rubio asked.
“They certainly have the capability … The Chinese United Front is working here in the United States today,” Pompeo replied. “They’re meeting with state legislators, they’re meeting with governors, they’re running what one of the things that was taking place at Houston were influence operations conducted by their diplomats.”
Earlier in the hearing, Pompeo said, “We closed the consulate in Houston because it was a den of spies.”
The Chinese government’s United Front Work Department has been identified as a key weapon for malign influence operations, including spying on or co-opting targets in the U.S. and elsewhere, and harassing or threatening Chinese citizens abroad. Chinese espionage in the U.S., including connected to the Chinese military and the Thousand Talents program, is the focus of a crackdown by the Trump administration.
“They not only have the capability but the intention of conducting influence operations in the United States,” Pompeo said on Thursday. “I think we’re a pretty resilient nation, and I’m confident that we’ll push back against that, but the world needs to understand when it’s happening here in the United States, it’s happening in their countries too.”
A spokesman for Rubio, who is the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Washington Examiner that the senator is “becoming increasingly concerned about China’s ongoing efforts to expand its influence and interference efforts” in the U.S.
“Beijing has a proven capability to carry out cyberattacks and spread disinformation with a clear intent to influence our government policies and pressure policymakers, including members of Congress,” Rubio’s spokesman said. “China’s resources are far greater than those of Russia, and we must either confront these threats now or pay a devastating price later.”
The hearing on Thursday came after Axios reported Wray and other officials “warned about China’s increased capability to interfere in U.S. elections in separate classified hearings with the Senate Intelligence Committee this week.” Sources claimed that Wray “cited concerns that China is developing the ability to interfere with local election systems and target members of Congress to influence China policy.”
Evanina, an official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said last week the intelligence community has “been providing robust intelligence-based briefings on election security,” and “we remain committed to addressing all foreign threats to our elections.”
The nation’s top counterintelligence official added that “China is expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism of China.” He also noted that “Beijing recognizes its efforts might affect the presidential race.”
“Russia’s persistent objective is to weaken the United States and diminish our global role,” Evanina said, pointing to “a range of efforts, including internet trolls and other proxies” while warning that “Russia continues to spread disinformation in the United States that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America.”
Rubio’s spokesman noted that the senator “warned against Russian interference in the 2016 elections and continues to be the direct target of Russian disinformation attacks.” He added that “Russia continues its efforts to weaken our country by spreading disinformation.”
“Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and divide the country in advance of the elections,” Evanina warned, noting that “Iran’s efforts center around online influence.”
Rubio and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on Democratic leaders to stop “politiciz[ing] intelligence matters” after the Democrats claimed that Evanina’s “statement gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation, and capability together.”
Rubio and McConnell defended Evanina and retorted: ”The intelligence community, law enforcement, election officials, and others involved in securing our elections are far better postured, and Congress dramatically better informed, than any of us were in 2016 — and our Democrat colleagues know it.”
“Today, we see our adversaries seeking to compromise the private communications of U.S. political campaigns, candidates, and other political targets,” Evanina said said last week. “Our adversaries also seek to compromise our election infrastructure, and we continue to monitor malicious cyberactors trying to gain access to U.S. state and federal networks, including those responsible for managing elections.”
In March, ODNI officials told lawmakers they rejected a stream of media reports based on classified briefings on election security.
“This is not a Russia-only problem,” the ODNI’s declassified fact sheet said.
Robert Mueller’s special counsel r eport, released in April 2019, said Russians interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.”