NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee this week loudly condemned what they said were threats to American democracy posed by Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Twenty ago, however, Senate Democrats sang a different tune and offered no such dire warnings about Chinese government meddling in the 1996 presidential vote that reelected Bill Clinton.
At Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Cyber Command budget, ranking Democrat Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island called Russian influence efforts “one of the great threats facing our democracy.” His remarks were echoed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, who called the recent indictment of 13 Russians involved in the influence campaign “an incredibly chilling, absolutely terrifying account of an attack on our democracy.”
Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia added that “our democracy was humiliated,” and three other Democrats on the panel voiced similar warnings, as if all were speaking from the same set of talking points.
Based on the comments, these senators apparently believe Russian interference prevented former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from being elected president in November 2016. That has been the active political narrative of the so-called anti-Trump resistance to so-far unproven notions that Russia colluded with Mr. Trump in the campaign.
Back in 1997, however, Senate Democrats took a much softer line on China’s foreign influence operation after it was disclosed that Beijing illegally funneled millions of dollars in cash into President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. The Chinese were backing a president who had allowed American companies to sell high-technology goods to China that ended up boosting Beijing’s missile, warhead and other advanced weapons programs.
The investigation into Chinese illegal campaign influence was triggered by reports in early 1997 that the FBI had intercepted communications from the Chinese Embassy outlining a multiyear campaign known as “The Plan” to change U.S. policy, including helping Mr. Clinton’s reelection by funneling cash to Beijing-linked group Asian Americans for the Democratic National Committee.
The late Sen. Fred Thompson led the first Senate probe into the affair for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee he chaired. But the Tennessee Republican’s inquiry was stymied by Democrats who forced the committee to limit the time frame for the investigation. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, under pressure from the Clinton White House, also slow-rolled requests for information on the Chinese plan to the committee.
Of the time limit, the panel’s final report said that “this obstruction, combined with the sheer complexity of the investigation, made this deadline the single greatest obstacle faced by the committee’s inquiry.”
Democrats minimized the Chinese election funding as inconclusive. Typical was the statement by then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in 1997: “I have not seen any information that leads me to believe China was involved in that kind of direct funneling of money into campaigns.”
Two years later, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence uncovered direct linkage. The committee’s 1999 report stated categorically the Chinese launched a covert political influence campaign in 1995 after the Clinton administration allowed a visit to the U.S. by Taiwanese President Lee Tung-hui.
“In response to President Lee’s visit, the PRC conceived of a plan to influence the U.S. political process favorably toward that country,” the report said. “The plan was an official PRC plan, and funds were made available for its implementation. The existence of this plan is substantiated by the body of evidence reviewed by the committee, including intelligence reports.”
The sharp divergence by the Democrats in their approach to foreign influence in American elections in 1996 and 2016 suggests politics, not national security, is behind current worries about Russian disinformation operations.
Think tanks targeted
Foreign governments are conducting covert operations against American think tanks in a bid to influence U.S. government policies, according to a veteran intelligence analyst.
Darren E. Tromblay, a U.S. intelligence analyst, writes in the new issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence that think tanks are vital elements of U.S. policymaking and thus for decades have been targeted by foreign intelligence services and other government agents.
Mr. Tromblay said China and Russia — along with the Soviet Union before it collapsed — are among the most active foreign powers working to exploit American public policy groups. Examples include a covert Soviet effort in the 1980s uncovered by the FBI to discredit the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative by cooperating with the liberal think tank, the Center for Defense Information.
“Russia has continued to seek out sympathetic think tank-affiliated individuals who will promote Russian narratives, which Moscow promotes in concert with a variety of other subversive measures,” Mr. Tromblay wrote.
China, too, is aggressive in seeking to influence think tanks to support Beijing’s policies. A Washington think tank that was not named “has maintained a strategic partnership with an entity that belongs to the Chinese Ministry of State Security and sponsors a fellow from that institution,” Mr. Tromblay wrote.
In a third case, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major Democratic-oriented think tank, in 2015 was paid up to $199,000 by a U.S. subsidiary of the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE, Mr. Tromblay wrote. A House Intelligence Committee report later identified ZTE as “a security threat to the United States and to [U.S.] systems.”
The United States “needs to protect these resources from foreign exploitation by fostering counterintelligence awareness,” Mr. Tromblay concluded.
Foreign influence operations against think tanks also should be disrupted to prevent subverting government decision making, he said.
Additionally, the operations can be monitored and exploited to support U.S. interests. “The U.S. can seek to introduce its own disinformation via channels that governments perceive to be authoritative,” Mr. Tromblay said. “Protecting think tanks and other research organizations from foreign manipulation contributes to securing the United States’ information advantage and to Washington’s ability to protect and promote American interests.”
Billions requested for intelligence
The Trump administration released figures for requested U.S. intelligence spending, both civilian and military, for the fiscal year 2019 that begins Oct. 1. From the figures, the Trump administration appears to be seeking to boost intelligence capabilities in addition to U.S. military might.
The Pentagon wants $21.2 billion and civilian intelligence agencies are asking for a whopping $59.9 billion. The total request of $81.1 billion, an enormous amount of money that is mostly spent in secret, is 3.4 percent higher than last year’s request of $78.4 billion.
No details on how the money will be spent were made public in the announcements by the Pentagon and director of national intelligence on the budget top lines. But both funding requests include money for “overseas contingency operations,” jargon for secret intelligence and secret military operations, mainly counterterrorism.
Those operations include the CIA’s covert program of drone strikes against foreign terrorist leaders. Under President Trump, CIA Director Mike Pompeo is said to be sharply increasing the covert drone strike program.
In the past, the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency under the Pentagon that builds, launches and operates high-tech electronic eavesdropping and photograph satellites, often received a major portion of the spy money.
But the trend toward using big, multi-purpose and very expensive satellites is said to be changing, in response to growing space attack threats against vulnerable satellites. The new trend is to build many smaller and more easily replaceable satellites. This could account for some of the increase.
Additional secret funding may be directed at new space weapons, arms that so far have not been discussed publicly by the Pentagon.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told a conference in Florida last week that the Air Force urgently needs to prepare for space warfare.
“I believe we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years, and we’re the service that must lead joint war fighting in this new contested domain,” Gen. Goldfein told an Air Force Association conference Feb. 23.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.