HomeGlobal Defence UpdatesTrump launched CIA covert influence operation against China

Trump launched CIA covert influence operation against China

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Two years into office, President Donald Trump authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to launch a clandestine campaign on Chinese social media aimed at turning public opinion in China against its government, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the highly classified operation.

Three former officials told that the CIA created a small team of operatives who used bogus internet identities to spread negative narratives about Xi Jinping’s government while leaking disparaging intelligence to overseas news outlets. The effort, which began in 2019, has not been previously reported.

During the past decade, China has rapidly expanded its global footprint, forging military pacts, trade deals, and business partnerships with developing nations.

The CIA team promoted allegations that members of the ruling Communist Party were hiding ill-gotten money overseas and slammed as corrupt and wasteful China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which provides financing for infrastructure projects in the developing world, the sources told Reuters.

Although the U.S. officials declined to provide specific details of these operations, they said the disparaging narratives were based in fact despite being secretly released by intelligence operatives under false cover. The efforts within China were intended to foment paranoia among top leaders there, forcing its government to expend resources chasing intrusions into Beijing’s tightly controlled internet, two former officials said. “We wanted them chasing ghosts,” one of these former officials said.

Chelsea Robinson, a CIA spokesperson, declined to comment on the existence of the influence program, its goals or impacts. A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said news of the CIA initiative shows the U.S. government uses the “public opinion space and media platforms as weapons to spread false information and manipulate international public opinion.” The CIA operation came in response to years of aggressive covert efforts by China aimed at increasing its global influence, the sources said. During his presidency, Trump pushed a tougher response to China than had his predecessors. The CIA’s campaign signaled a return to methods that marked Washington’s struggle with the former Soviet Union. “The Cold War is back,” said Tim Weiner, author of a book on the history of political warfare.

Reuters was unable to determine the impact of the secret operations or whether the administration of President Joe Biden has maintained the CIA program. Kate Waters, a spokesperson for the Biden administration’s National Security Council, declined to comment on the program’s existence or whether it remains active. Two intelligence historians told Reuters that when the White House grants the CIA covert action authority, through an order known as a presidential finding, it often remains in place across administrations.

Trump, now the Republican frontrunner for president, has suggested he will take an even tougher approach toward China if re-elected president in November. Spokespeople for Trump and his former national security advisers, John Bolton and Robert O’Brien, who both served the year the covert action order was signed, declined to comment.

The operation against Beijing came with significant risk of escalating tensions with the United States, given the power of China’s economy and its ability to retaliate through trade, said Paul Heer, a former senior CIA analyst on East Asia who learned of the presidential authorization from Reuters. For example, after Australia called for an investigation inside China probing the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Beijing blocked billions of dollars in Australian trade through agricultural tariffs.

Trump’s 2019 order came after years of warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, and media reports, about how China was using bribery and threats to obtain support from developing countries in geopolitical disputes as it attempted to sow division in the United States through front groups.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing follows a “principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and does not interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States.”

A year earlier, Trump gave the CIA greater powers to launch offensive cyber operations against U.S. adversaries after numerous Russian and Chinese cyber attacks against American organizations,Yahoo News reported. Reuters could not independently confirm the existence of the earlier order.

Sources described the 2019 authorization uncovered by Reuters as a more ambitious operation. It enabled the CIA to take action not only in China but also in countries around the world where the United States and China are competing for influence. Four former officials said the operation targeted public opinion in Southeast Asia, Africa and the South Pacific.

“The feeling was China was coming at us with steel baseball bats and we were fighting back with wooden ones,” said a former national security official with direct knowledge of the finding.

Matt Pottinger, a senior National Security Council official at the time, crafted the authorization, three former officials said. It cited Beijing’s alleged use of malign influence, allegations of intellectual property theft and military expansion as threats to U.S. national security, one of those former officials said.

Pottinger told Reuters he would not comment on the “accuracy or inaccuracy of allegations about U.S. intelligence activities,” adding that “it would be incorrect to assume that I would have had knowledge of specific U.S. intelligence operations.”

Covert messaging allows the United States to implant ideas in countries where censorship might prevent that information from coming to light, or in areas where audiences wouldn’t give much credence to U.S. government statements, said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist who studies the use of such tactics.

Covert propaganda campaigns were common during the Cold War, when the CIA planted 80 to 90 articles a day in an effort to undermine the Soviet Union, Johnson said. In the 1950s, for example, the CIA created an astrological magazine in East Germany to publish foreboding predictions about communist leaders, according to declassified records.

The covert propaganda campaign against Beijing could backfire, said Heer, the former CIA analyst. China could use evidence of a CIA influence program to bolster its decades-old accusations of shadowy Western subversion, helping Beijing “proselytize” in a developing world already deeply suspicious of Washington.

The message would be: “‘Look at the United States intervening in the internal affairs of other countries and rejecting the principles of peaceful coexistence,'” Heer said. “And there are places in the world where that is going to be a resonant message.”

U.S. influence operations also risk endangering dissidents, opposition groups critical of China and independent journalists, who could be falsely painted as CIA assets, said Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who wrote a book on the history of political warfare.

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