Amid concerns that Russia may be trying to influence the 2018 midterm elections through hacks and disinformation campaigns, top American officials are warning of another threat: China.
China has one of the world’s most intrusive intelligence collection capabilities and has a long-term strategy of influencing the United States through information campaigns, according to top Trump administration officials. But they offered no details about the information campaigns.
“It is part of a more holistic approach to influence the American public in favor of China,” Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Oct. 2 during an event hosted by the Washington Post. While she did not offer specific evidence that China — or any other nation — currently has an intention to disrupt the American election infrastructure, Nielsen warned that leaders in the Asian country have the technical capability and could change their mind.
Chris Krebs, an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Oct. 2 that China sees “things like how our policies are affecting global trade” as targets of their influence campaign.
Krebs agreed that the Chinese government was attempting to boost its policy objectives rather than supporting one particular political party, but he referred questions about specific examples of Chinese influence to the intelligence community and the FBI. Neither Krebs nor Nielsen directly attributed the campaign to the upcoming midterm election.
“No country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China,” Christopher Wray, director of the FBI said Oct. 1 during a speech to the National Association of Corporate Directors. “China, in particular, seeks our information, our technology, and our military secrets … They’re using an expanding set of non-traditional methods — both lawful and unlawful — like cyber intrusions, foreign investment, corporate acquisitions and supply chain threats.”
The officials did not offer more details about the Chinese influence campaign, and it is not clear if it overlaps with their intelligence collection effort. However, experts have previously told Fifth Domain that military contractors are under particular threat of cyberattacks.
“There has also been a significant history of Chinese money finding its way into campaign contributions and hackers crawling campaign networks looking for policy papers and other positions that might impact China in the long run should a candidate get elected," Ross Rustici, head of intelligence at the cybersecurity firm Cybereason told Fifth Domain. "However, there is little in the public domain to suggest that any of their current activity is targeted or interested in undermining the midterm elections in the same manner as we saw with Russia in 2016,”
The slew of statements from top U.S. officials come amid a sharp rise in tension between China and Russia.
“Regrettably, we’ve found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” Trump told the U.N. Security Council Sept. 26.
It was not clear if the election interference efforts included cyber intrusions or hacking efforts. Trump did not offer specific examples, and the Chinese government denied the claim.
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.