Trump team's China focus distracts from Russia election meddling

President Donald Trump continues to scoff at what he calls the "Russia, Russia, Russia" hoax.
President Donald Trump continues to scoff at what he calls the "Russia, Russia, Russia" hoax.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US intelligence and national security agencies face a new obstacle in protecting this year's election: an effort by President Donald Trump and some of his top appointees to downplay the threat posed by Russia while inflating the danger from China, according to officials.

Top political appointees - including director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe, national security adviser Robert 0'Brien, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Attorney-General William Barr - have suggested in recent weeks that China is the bigger election threat, even though intelligence assessments don't confirm that assertion.

At the same time, the administration has restricted the flow of intelligence information to the public. It scrapped an annual open hearing on top threats to the US and said it would provide only written briefings to lawmakers.

The Department of Homeland Security's former intelligence chief filed a whistleblower complaint, made public last week, saying he was told to focus on China and Iran instead of Russian election interference that "made the President look bad". The department denied the claims.

Cyber security experts point to recent Russian meddling attempts with alarm.

"Multiple cyber espionage actors have targeted organisations associated with the upcoming election, but we remain most concerned by Russian military intelligence, who we believe poses the greatest threat to the democratic process," said Mr John Hultquist, senior director of analysis at the Mandiant unit of cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc.

Privately, national security officials say they're clear-eyed about the threats from Russia, China and other adversaries, and offer a far more nuanced picture about election security than is being given by Mr Trump's appointees. An intelligence assessment released last month didn't assert that China is the bigger election threat.

Russia is more aggressive when it comes to actively trying to disrupt and interfere in the Nov 3 election and sow discord in America, officials said, while China is conducting hacking, social media and influence operations in order to collect intelligence, advance its version of events and gain a long-term strategic and economic advantage over the US.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

Mr O'Brien said this month that "we've made it very clear to the Chinese, to the Russians, to the Iranians" that there would be consequences for election interference.

The national security adviser told reporters on Sept 4 that China - not Russia - "has the most massive programme to influence the United States politically".

 
 

But officials in the White House are aware of the nuances. The National Security Council circulated an unclassified report last week with details about what Russia and China are doing, one official said.

Mr Barr downplayed Russia's activity in an interview this month on CNN, saying only that "there's some preliminary activity that suggests" Russia might try to interfere in the election. The attorney-general said China is the most aggressive in trying to influence the US.

CLAIMS UNDERCUT

Actions taken by government agencies also undercut the claims by Mr Trump's political appointees who have said that China is the bigger threat to the election or have changed the topic to other threats posed by Beijing.

The Treasury Department last week sanctioned Mr Andrii Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament who met with Mr Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani last year, alleging that Mr Derkach is a Russian agent trying to influence the election.

Three other people associated with a Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, were also sanctioned. One of them was named by the Justice Department in a criminal complaint for his role managing "a Russia-based effort to engage in political and electoral interference operations."

Four years ago, intelligence and law enforcement agencies struggled to get a grip on what Russia was doing to interfere in the election. Ultimately, they concluded Russia was meddling in an effort to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Mr Trump win the presidency.

 
 

Mr Trump continues to scoff at what he calls the "Russia, Russia, Russia" hoax.

This time, agencies are closely tracking what Russia, China and other adversaries are doing, reporting the intelligence to policy makers and lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum who then might deliberately misrepresent the findings. Officials said how the intelligence is portrayed is out of their control.

'UNDERMINE DEMOCRACY'

Ms Sue Gordon, former principal deputy director of national intelligence, said Sunday that China's goal is "to create an economic advantage" over time, while Russia's "is to undermine democracy."

Blaming the President, but also his Democratic opponents, for undercutting confidence in the election, Ms Gordon said on CBS' Face The Nation that this "message - that you can't trust the system, that you can't trust the vote, that you can't trust the other party - is exactly what the Russians, particularly, hope to achieve".

Despite the administration's decision to prevent intelligence analysts from giving lawmakers in-person briefings about election interference, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, FBI director Christopher Wray and Christopher Miller, director of the National Counter-terrorism Centre, have been called to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday (Sept 10). Mr Wolf was subpoenaed after he refused, citing his pending confirmation process for the secretary's job.

Mr Wolf told Fox News on Friday that the complaint by the whistleblower, Mr Brian Murphy, is "totally false."

 
 

He said Mr Murphy lodged his complaint - that he was ordered not to report on Russian interference or the threat posed by white supremacists - in retaliation after Mr Wolf demoted him from heading the DHS intelligence office because of "serious complaints" that the office "was collecting information on American journalists."

A statement issued last month by Mr William Evanina, head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, listed China, Russia and Iran as all having preferences "for who wins the election."

Although the terse summary said China prefers that Mr Trump loses, it specified that Russia is using a range of active measures to help Mr Trump win and to denigrate his Democratic rival, former vice-president Joe Biden.

Given the heated political climate, in which a misstep could prompt retaliation by Mr Trump, agencies are encouraging private companies to issue detailed public warnings about election interference, the officials said.

That was the case last week when Microsoft Corp issued a sharp warning about election-related hacking and interference by groups linked to Russia, China and Iran.

The report said the Russians are launching campaigns "presumably to aid in intelligence gathering or disruption operations", while China "has attempted to gain intelligence on organisations associated with the upcoming US presidential election."

CREATING CHAOS

China and Iran typically use information operations to inject their state messaging or ideas on foreign policy into the public debate, while Russia has a history of deliberate attempts to create chaos in other countries, according to Mr Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, which analyses social media and routinely uncovers disinformation operations.

"Russia has the most experience and strength in depth," Mr Nimmo said. "We've seen multiple different Russian operations attempting interference in multiple elections in different countries in recent years."

Cyber security professionals say Russia's military hackers have become more difficult to detect since their meddling in 2016, but Microsoft's detection of their attempts to hack the Biden campaign provides evidence of what US experts had long feared - that Russia is trying to meddle once again.

The Russian group, known in the security community as APT28, "has carried out many of the most brash and aggressive cyber operations to ever come to light, such as the economically devastating NotPetya attacks and the attempted disruption of the PyeongChang Olympic Games", Mr Hultquist said.

Despite US efforts to deter the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, which spread disinformation in 2016, new accounts linked to the group have appeared on social media and have attempted to gain traction on the American left.

And another Russia-based influence operation - which is called Secondary Infektion and engaged in a leak operation in Europe - could turn its focus to the US election near voting day, Mr Hultquist said.