by Austin Bay
January 30, 2018
CIA Director Mike Pompeo pegs Russia and China as America's two most powerful and worrisome adversaries. And the CIA Director is worried. Both Russia and China conduct covert influence operations targeting U.S. security efforts, important institutions and political processes, to include American elections.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Pompeo said he believes Russia will meddle in the 2018 U.S. midterm election. The Kremlin will also continue political subversion campaigns in Europe.
Yes, Russian political subversion in Europe. Does it sound like the Kremlin has revived the Cold War? Except Eastern Europeans, particularly Estonians, Ukrainians and Moldovans, will remind you that Russia never stopped waging subversive warfare against its neighbors.
Russia also employs overt warfare. Its 2014 invasion of Crimea and its ongoing dirty war in eastern Ukraine are immediate examples. Recall in one 2012 presidential debate President Barack Obama mocked Republican candidate Mitt Romney for arguing that Russia remained a threat. Obama dismissed Romney as a warmonger trapped in the past. Obama was wrong.
Russia, however, may be second fiddle. In his BBC interview, Pompeo said in terms of the ability to conduct covert influence operations "The Chinese have a much bigger footprint" than the Russians.
That means China presents a broader and more complex threat.
"We can watch very focused efforts (by China) to steal American information," Pompeo said, and "to infiltrate the United States with spies -- with people who are going to work on behalf of the Chinese government against America."
China has money. Russia is strapped for cash. China uses its money. Money can buy people.
A recent spy case may have been on Pompeo's mind. In mid-January, 2018, American authorities arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA officer who sold out to China. Lee's treason led to the arrest or murder of an estimated 20 people who became U.S. intelligence sources in China.
There are many kinds of covert influence operations. Lee appears to be a classic case of a turncoat spy. Since the beginning of recorded history, sympathetic political agents have served as a plausibly deniable propagandists. During the Cold War, the Kremlin relied on "the useful idiots in the West" for support.
Twentieth century influence operations leveraged media, education and financial institutions. Today, Beijing and Moscow are exploiting pervasive 21st century digital communications networks and digital media platforms with the goals of damaging American security efforts and disrupting American institutions.
China is very adept at what were once called "industrial espionage" operations. The term referred to stealing commercial-sector secrets. Often the thief was a competing company or investment group. The Chinese government, however, targets American commercial enterprises. The stolen data, trade secrets and patents may further Beijing's political and military goals. However, Beijing also provides Chinese companies with many of the stolen commercial secrets. Unfair competitive advantage? You bet.
But Beijing's Communist leaders may regard commercial theft and covert influence operations of all types as key weapons in 21st century warfare.
In a recent MIT International Security review article examining Chinese military strategy, M. Taylor Fravel concluded that the Chinese Communist Party believes the condition of "informization" is central to 21st century warfare. To paraphrase Fravel, information ("broadly defined") plays "a "leading role" in war." Information combat includes cyber war but it also appears to include psychological operations.
The Chinese military has marching orders to win "informationized local wars." Maritime disputes, such as China's claim in the South China Sea, receive particular emphasis.
Military power provides the physical threat, but undermining the legitimate South China Sea territorial claims of Vietnam and the Philippines using propaganda campaigns to sow discord and seed doubt might be Beijing's decisive weapon. Corrupting Filipino officials with Chinese cash might also further Beijing's imperial designs.