Attorney General (AG) William Barr has labeled China the greatest national security threat facing the United States. He did so in an interview that Fox News aired last Wednesday. In it, he says Beijing poses a greater challenge to U.S. election security in 2020 than Russia.
Which country poses a larger threat?
Laura Ingraham asked the AG whether the Chinese Communist Party or Vladimir Putin’s Russia was the bigger threat on the election meddling front?
Barr said, “In my opinion, it’s China… And not just to the election process, but I think across the board — there’s simply no comparison. China is a very serious threat to the United States geopolitically, economically, militarily, and a threat to the integrity of our institutions given their ability to influence things.”
National security officials told lawmakers in March that the intelligence community has not concluded that Russia is backing any particular 2020 candidate but did warn about interference campaigns by multiple countries. The information appeared in an unclassified fact sheet from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“The IC has not concluded that the Kremlin is directly aiding any candidate’s reelection … nor have we concluded that the Russians will definitely choose to try to do so in 2020,” the ODNI said. “This is not a Russia-only problem. China, Iran, other countries like North Korea and Cuba, and non-state actors all have the opportunity, means, and potential motive to interfere in the 2020 elections as a way to achieve their goals.”
The ODNI said some countries “are trying to influence the public debate largely on social media in order to stoke discord in the United States” to sway voter preferences, shift U.S. policies, and undermine faith in the U.S. democratic process. Intelligence officials have repeatedly countered anonymously sourced media reports from February in which unnamed sources said the intelligence community concluded Russia was helping President Trump with reelection and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont with winning the Democratic primaries.
The spy organization did say that “we expect that the intent of hostile state actors toward the 2020 election will evolve as the election nears.” The intelligence community also drew attention to China, claiming “Beijing continues to promote policies that are in line with China’s interests” and “may consider more aggressive or expansive activity if bilateral relations significantly worsen.”
Ingraham pressed Barr on what the Justice Department is doing to combat Chinese propaganda efforts inside the U.S.
“The department is heavily engaged in that,” Barr said. “In fact, that’s one of our highest priorities in the counterintelligence realm, counterespionage realm, and protection of trade secrets. [These are] our activities directed to defend against the Chinese.”
The U.S. warned that Chinese diplomats and state-run media accounts have engaged in anti-U.S. disinformation campaigns about the coronavirus, and the U.S. intelligence community suspects China has consistently lied about the outbreak.
The attorney general said, “The Chinese are engaged in a full-court blitzkrieg of stealing American technology, trying to influence our political system, trying to steal secrets at our research universities and so forth — and we are focused on it.”
“We have something we call the China initiative,” Barr said. “We’ve brought a lot of indictments, but it’s something that we also have to expose by letting the business community understand the exact nature of the threat.”
The DOJ’s China initiative, launched in 2018, aims to combat both Chinese malign influence ranging from cyber espionage to technology theft and its Thousand Talents Program, which is aimed at stealing research. The department charged Chinese telecom giant Huawei in a global racketeering scheme earlier this year.
Trump recently revamped the government’s Team Telecom efforts to keep foreign foes out of U.S. telecommunications networks, and the DOJ backed the Federal Communications Commission’s successful plan late last year to block companies such as Huawei and ZTE from receiving federal money to help build U.S. broadband infrastructure.
5G, Huawei, State intelligence and monitoring
The department also supported the FCC’s proposal to replace any broadband equipment already in place that uses the two Chinese companies’ equipment. The FCC declared that the two companies “pose a threat to national security” and blocked them from receiving anything from the U.S. government’s $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund in late November.
The U.S. believes Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese companies are working hand-in-hand with the Chinese government, potentially giving China’s surveillance state access to hardware and networks around the world. Huawei and ZTE have denied that their equipment poses a security risk.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly warned European allies against using Huawei, and Barr said in February that U.S. national security depended on pushing back against China’s dominance in 5G technology.
Attacks on U.S. based research
Ingraham asked Barr specifically about Chinese influence efforts within U.S.-based research.
“Well, I think we are trying to tighten up on those programs and a number of the universities working closely with the government to understand what the nature of the threat is, but it’s not just universities,” was Barr’s response. “I mean, universities are part of the problem, but a lot of American businesses … just for short-term gain, they are perhaps not doing what is necessary in the long-term interest of the United States.”
Both the Department of Education as well as DOJ prosecutors have gone after universities for concealing their foreign funding, including a high-profile arrest in January of a Harvard professor tied to China’s Wuhan University of Technology.
Barr previously said China “has emerged as the United States’ top geopolitical adversary” and “remains a dictatorship under which the Communist Party elite jealously guard their monopoly on power.”
The DOJ has increased its scrutiny of China’s activities in recent years, charging an increased number of espionage cases, cracking down on China-based hacking schemes, and prosecuting Chinese efforts to steal trade secrets. China is a bigger threat than Russia and its aggression is growing economically, financially and geopolitically.