At a glance.
- US ODNI summarizes Russian, Chinese, and Iranian election influence goals.
- US Executive Orders and their effect on Chinese apps.
- China reacts to the US Clean Networks program.
- Tories' China Research Group's influence grows.
US ODNI summarizes current findings on election interference.
The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday released a statement on election interference. NCSC Director William Evanina says that China, Russia, and Iran are all interested in various forms of interference. Briefly, China dislikes President Trump, whom it regards as unpredictable, and wants him out. Iran also dislikes the incumbent and sees the prospect of his reelection as likely to mean increased pressure on the Islamic Republic. Russia is denigrating former Vice President Biden, whom Moscow sees as dangerously connected with Ukraine and as part of an anti-Russian establishment. Thus China and Iran want Mr. Trump out; Russia has little use for Mr. Biden. The relevant sections of the statement are:
- “CHINA – We assess that China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China. Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues. For example, it has harshly criticized the Administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market. Beijing recognizes that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race.”
- “RUSSIA – We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment.” This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia. For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
- “IRAN – We assess that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on on-line influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content. Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs distributed, also on Friday, the following comment on the NCSC statement:
“One of the best tools our election officials and the American people have to help defend against election interference is transparency on the risks to elections. ODNI’s statement today demonstrates this commitment to providing transparency and continuing to raise awareness among the American public about the threats to our election systems. We’ve come a long way since 2016 and we appreciate the Intelligence Community efforts to continue to downgrade and share information as broadly as possible, and we encourage them to continue to do so.
“The threat information shared today is serious and troubling, but Americans should rest assured that we are working to ensure our elections remain secure. We have long said Russia and other nation-states are targeting our elections. We knew this to be true in 2016, we know its true today and we know they will continue to attempt to interfere. While motives may vary, one thing is consistent: They are attempting to interfere in our democratic process. That’s why we have spent the last several years preparing alongside our partners across all levels of government, campaigns, and tech companies to ensure the adversaries are not successful and American voters decide American elections.”
US Executive Orders and their effect on Chinese apps.
ByteDance appears likely to have to sell off its TikTok platform after last week’s Executive Order that would ban TikTok in the US.
According to NPR, TikTok is considering litigation against the US Government in the hope of overturning the ban. A suit could be filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of California as early as tomorrow, and NPR speculates that the grounds of TikTok’s challenge would be that the President’s findings of fact are thin, that the Order violated due process, and that moreover the President lacks the authority to do what he did.
Such a suit seems unlikely to succeed on any of these grounds, and TikTok is unlikely to be able to count on much political support. The Executive Order is directed against TikTok as a threat to users’ data, and as an actual or potential tool of Chinese intelligence. Bipartisan suspicion of Chinese data collection is now so deep that it will be difficult for TikTok to maintain, plausibly, that it wouldn’t share user data with Beijing’s intelligence and security services, especially when Chinese law seems to require that companies based there do so on demand. In any case, the US Senate last Thursday unanimously voted to ban TikTok from all Government-issued devices.
Microsoft's possible TikTok acquisition would be technically challenging, Reuters reports. TikTok shares a significant amount of code and resources with its ByteDance corporate sister Douyin, a social platform available only in China. Carving TikTok out from its dependence on such shared resources is likely to be not impossible, but surely difficult. Doing so without damaging what observers think is TikTok’s distinctive advantage, its recommendation engine that meretriciously keeps users coming back for more, is part of that challenge, although the engine itself is believed to be unique to TikTok, and not shared with other platforms. Another challenge the mooted acquisition faces is that it requires a geographical disentanglement as well: Microsoft is said to be considering acquiring not TikTok as a whole, but only its operations in four of the Five Eyes: the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
There are other suitors for TikTok. The Wall Street Journal says that Twitter has been in talks with the ByteDance-owned social platform, but an acquisition by Twitter seems to many a long shot. Twitter doesn’t have Microsoft’s cash, for one thing, and so any acquisition would have to be highly leveraged.
China responds to the US "Clean Networks" program.
That response, in the state-controlled mouthpiece Global Times, is a long tu quoque, outlining US surveillance programs that show, in Beijing's view, that China is far more sinned against than sinning. The article's peroration is a good enough summary: "All countries should stay vigilant when the US is approaching again, and we should never forget the fear of living at the mercy of the indiscriminate surveillance organized by the US. Back in these days, officials of US alliance countries had to walk into a meeting room without phones, play music during meeting discussions and take minutes with typewriters instead of laptops. Another case in point is the Crypto AG scandal. The half-a-century old Swiss company was proved to be working for the CIA, and the Crypto devices it sold to 120 countries were ironically tapping equipment. These days are not too far, yet the US has already come with another invitation. However, no country will be easily convinced this time of the 'clean network', because it might be another trap of 'tapping network'."
Parliamentary Conservatives look for further restriction of Chinese companies in the UK.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the China Research Group, an association of Tory MPs, counts HM Government's movement to exclude Huawei from Britain's 5G infrastructure a success. The group is looking for other China-related threats. “I hope China will see it for what it is,” China Research Group Chairman Tom Tugendhat said. “We have specific interests and we intend to defend them.”