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China syndrome: Washington elites keep undercutting messaging about Beijing's malign influence

FBI director's recent warning that China is America's gravest threat was negated days later by Biden DOJ, which ended a crucial Chinese counterintelligence program.

Published: May 8, 2022 4:22pm

Updated: May 8, 2022 10:38pm

In summer 2020, the Homeland Security Department's intelligence office sought to publish an unclassified report suggesting Russia was trying to influence the presidential election by denigrating Joe Biden's health.

When senior department executives, including then-acting Secretary Chad Wolfe, intervened to strengthen and broaden the report to include references to similar efforts by Iran (which had hacked a state voter database) and China (which questioned Donald Trump's mental stability), a DHS intelligence official filed a whistleblower complaint alleging improper political interference.

Eventually the complaint was withdrawn, and the report was modified with a few sentences — called a shadow box — to include alleged efforts by China and Iran to meddle in the election, according to a report released last week by the DHS inspector general.

The department's watchdog concluded the election report did not follow the normal intel processes and that Wolfe's intervention risked creating the perception of political interference. But it also acknowledged many in DHS viewed the original product as poorly written and executed.

To some experts, the anecdote is one in a long line of examples of how Washington's political, security and media machinery have stayed on top of Russia's many threats while simultaneously muting concerns about Beijing,

"Think about Communist China, like what you think right now about Russia," Sen. Rick Scott, (R-Fla.) told Just the News recently, acknowledging Moscow's "atrocities" against men, women and children in Ukraine were "disgusting."

"Look, that's a lot like what the communist government of China is doing," he said. "They put a million people in prison for their religion. They took away the basic rights of Hong Kong citizens. I have an individual, I know his mom, just got tortured and killed because she's a Falun Gong supporter.

"They arrest people, they put them in prison, and they just take their organs out and sell them in the black market. They're threatening our ally Taiwan. We've got to wake up and say, you know, the Chinese people might be nice people — and my experience is they are — but their government is despicable."

Washington's efforts to suppress negative narratives about China most famously occurred during the 2020 election, when federal science and intel officials kept disputing the lethal COVID-19 virus could have come from a lab leak in China.

Months after Biden won the election, the intelligence community changed course and conceded the lab leak theory was one of two plausible causes, the other being natural evolution.

But it's hardly the only example.

In late January, FBI Director Chris Wray gave an ominous speech at the Ronald Reagan library warning China was America's most pressing security threat, comparing Beijing's efforts to steal American secrets of innovation and intellectual property with the Soviet Cold War efforts to gain military dominance in the world.

"The sheer volume of criminal and threatening actions we see from the Chinese government is immense," Wray declared.

But two weeks later, the Biden Justice Department ended an FBI program that cracked down on Chinese espionage carried out through academics, professors and students.

The FBI's former intelligence chief sharply criticized ending the program.

"China represents the gravest national security threat to this country right now, hands down," retired Assistant Director for Intelligence Kevin Brock told Just the News. "It's probably not even close. ... They just reach out and they steal our R&D, and they're shameless in doing so."

"Anything that these students and professors are obtaining while they're here in this country is flowing right back to China," he warned. "…So to shut down that as a counterintelligence avenue or an advantage that we have or an imperative that we have is a little bit shortsighted."

Last week, the respected defense firm Cybereason warned that the Winnti Group, an alleged Chinese state-sponsored hacking group, was waging an "intricate and extensive" hacking effort targeting defense, energy, aerospace, biotech, and pharma manufacturers across North America, Europe, and Asia.

"The most alarming revelation is that the companies weren't aware they were breached, going some as far back as at least 2019," the cyber firm warned.

There was no Biden administration announcement or press conference after the report was released, another example to some of official Washington staying silent in the face of the China threat.

Some intelligence experts likewise raise concerns about inherent contradictions in the official intelligence community assessment the Biden administration released in March 2021 about alleged 2020 foreign election interference, one that came just months after the DHS report first surfaced.

The Intelligence Community Assessment report found that Russia made efforts to undercut Biden and Iran made efforts to malign Trump, but "China did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. presidential election."

But then, a few short sentences later, the assessment added a seemingly conflicting conclusion: The National Intelligence Office for Cyber "assesses, however, that China did take some steps to try to undermine former President Trump's re-election," it noted.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who two years ago flipped from the Democratic Party to the GOP, told Just the News that the United States too often follows a policy of appeasement when it comes to Beijing and that dynamic needs to be disrupted soon.

"We're on our knees to China," he said, recalling that "some of their staff and ambassadors said … 'You are a weak, weak country." 

Retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, former national security adviser to both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, said it is time the United States considered creating a security coalition like NATO to resist China's growing aggression.

"The big threat shouldn't be Russia, even though they got more nuclear weapons than China," Kellogg said. "But China is an emergent threat, both diplomatically, military and economically.

"I think we need to think hard about pulling everybody together — we haven't done that yet — and then focusing on China actions." ​

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