NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Senior Obama administration officials this week trumpeted bilateral climate change talks with the Chinese in Beijing — one of the world’s most polluted cities.
However, one little-noticed initiative is creating security concerns that China may gain access to strategic data on U.S. electrical grids that could be used in a future cyberattack against the U.S. infrastructure.
As with previous meetings of the latest U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, both U.S. and Chinese officials offered vague statements on the climate change talks this week.
Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, told reporters that “good meetings” were held along with lots of “active cooperation” with China on the subject.
Said Mr. Stern: “The joint session that was held today on climate change, I think, was, overall, quite positive.” In diplomatic-speak, that is the rough equivalent of “we talked a lot but agreed on little.”
China’s air pollution is epic, with choking smog a persistent problem especially in the capital, Beijing. Communist authorities euphemistically refer to the smog as “bad weather.”
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Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang said during the talks that China plans a “war” on pollution.
One troubling aspect of the talks, however, was Mr. Stern’s reference to one of eight projects announced Tuesday — cooperation between China and the United States on “smart grid” electrical networks.
No details were provided in the State Department’s “key points” of the talks, and a spokeswoman did not return emails seeking comment.
The smart grid is the application of digital technology to better manage electricity through the network of transmission lines, substations and transformers that deliver electricity, arguably the country’s most important energy source.
China also is developing its own smart grid.
Security analysts say the digitization of the electrical power grid will create new vulnerabilities for cyberattacks — a Chinese military warfare specialty that is a growing concern.
The Justice Department in May indicted five People’s Liberation Army hackers for cyberattacks on U.S. businesses. The indictment prompted China to cancel a cybersecurity working group at the latest round of talks in Beijing.
China’s military recently highlighted its view of the role of cyberattacks in warfare. A PLA report, “Strategic Review 2013,” published in April stated that “the international struggle for cyberspace dominance has become increasingly fiercer.”
“Major powers in the world have put their premium on developing their own military forces in cyberspace and on scrambling for the dominant position in cyberspace,” the report says. “International competition over cyberspace has displayed a new tendency of stressing the ability to deter, to attack and to regulate.”
China already has mapped out the U.S. electrical grid and planted covert software that could be used for sabotage — to destroy infrastructure component — in a future crisis or conflict.
“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” a senior intelligence official told The Wall Street Journal in 2009.
‘NO STRATEGY’ FOR IRAQ
Senior Obama administration officials briefed members of Congress on the drive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to seize control of Iraq.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined for senators the situation in Iraq, where ISIL has seized a large central section and has declared that is leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is now the head of a “caliphate” stretching across Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey outlined the possible military options, which currently are limited to deploying 740 troops to assess the threat posed by ISIL and whether the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces can counter it.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, emerged from the classified briefing with harsh words for the administration.
“It’s a classified briefing, so I will not provide any details of that briefing, except to say very clearly, there is no strategy for countering the largest enclave of terrorism in history on the Iraq-Syria border,” Mr. McCain told reporters Tuesday. “They have no strategy, nor could they articulate a strategy to counter what our intelligence estimates are over time will be a direct threat to the United States of America.”
Asked about the senator’s comments, Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby declined to comment but defended the Defense Department’s approach to the renewed conflict.
“I’m not going to talk about what was discussed in a classified briefing on the Hill,” Adm. Kirby said. “What I would tell you is that we’re taking a very measured, deliberate approach here to a very complicated problem inside Iraq.”
The current military mission is twofold — providing security for diplomats in Baghdad and facilities at the airport, and dispatching six assessment teams, mostly around Baghdad, to gauge the cohesion of the Iraqi Security Forces.
Two joint operations centers have been set up — one in Baghdad, the other in Irbil.
Adm. Kirby said the operations centers are “designed to help us get a better sense of what’s going on, on the ground, before any follow-on military decisions are made.”
Gen. Dempsey last month said he was preparing additional options for President Obama, including targeting “high-value” ISIL leaders and protecting critical Iraqi infrastructure. Additionally, U.S. military forces could be used in the future in “blunting attacks by massed groups of ISIL,” the four-star general told NPR June 28.
“That’s the mission that we’ve been given. That’s the strategy that we’re pursuing,” Gen. Dempsey said.
Adm. Kirby said Tuesday that the military teams will complete the initial assessments “very soon.”
“It’s almost done,” he said, adding that “the assessments will come up and then leadership will get a chance to take a look, and we’ll go from there.”
Both manned aircraft and drones are conducting up to 50 flights over Iraq every day.
Currently 640 U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq for the assessment teams and operations centers.
JORDAN SPYING WITH CHINA
Jordan’s intelligence service, a close ally of the CIA, has begun working with China’s Ministry of State Security, according to the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online.
The newsletter reported recently that the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate has stepped up cooperation with the MSS due to the growing threat of jihadist terror in neighboring Syria.
“Caught in the middle of the jihadist crisis in the Middle East, Amman needs allies,” the newsletter stated, adding that cooperation with other Chinese intelligence services also has increased.
The report said the spy agencies are sharing data on Chinese Muslim fighters that have joined Islamist rebels in Syria, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the official al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusra Front.
“The Jordanian intelligence services fear the country will become the jihadists’ rear base in the region, while the Guoanbu, like western intelligence services, is concerned about the return home of battle-hardened fighters,” the report said using the Chinese term for the MSS.
China has launched a crackdown on Turkish speaking Uighurs from Xinjiang after several recent terror attacks. According to the newsletter, China believes that Turkey’s intelligence service, the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, is facilitating the Chinese terrorists’ entry into Syria and Iraq.
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.