Foreign Interference Comes in Many Forms, from Many Sources

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS February 19, 2018

            There was a great deal of interest shown at the Senate Intelligence Committee's hearing on February 13 about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 Presidential election and the upcoming 2018 Congressional contests. Ranking Democrat Mark Warner (D-VA) again bashed the Russian use of social media, using both advertising and individual postings. Warner claimed Russia "weaponized" social media during 2016 to push pro-Trump propaganda and sow discord within the country. While the second of these two points has been true for decades, it is not, however, clear that the Russian motive was to elect Trump. Were Russian experts on American politics so much better at analyzing election trends than all those stateside who thought Hillary Clinton had the White House locked in? Is it not more likely that they were running a campaign (including possible hacks of Democratic sites) to undermine the woman they felt they would have to deal with as President; to weaken her in office?

            Yet, their effort was puny compared to the campaigns waged by the two major parties. Clinton raised $973.2 million directly and was reinforced by another $218.5 million from Super-PACs for a total of nearly $1.2 billion. Can she really claim she did not have the means to get her message out, burying the media efforts of her Republican rival Donald Trump, who spent "only" $678 million? And that is not counting the informal help she got from a friendly mainstream mews media and even many entertainment series which featured female presidents in their 2016 plot lines to foreshadow what hey expected to be the outcome in November. The Russian effort was a pebble next to this avalanche. Robert Mueller's indictment of Russian operatives should not serve to exaggerate their impact, though it will hopefully deter future acts of subversion.

            Of course, any foreign effort to influence U.S. elections and policy-making to favor their interests over those of the American people must be exposed and halted. But Russia is only one offender. Mexico made a much more direct effort to affect the election outcome by having its consulates in the U.S. sponsor (even host) "citizenship clinics" across the country to urge permanent residents from Mexico to become U.S. citizens and those who were already citizens to vote in their homeland's national interest for candidates who would not interfere with free trade and open borders.  Mexico was animated to make a major effort in the face of Donald Trump's campaign to "build a wall" and deport illegal immigrants. Of course, officially the Mexican government claimed it was not "interfering" in the U.S. election, but what else could it be called? Statements by the Mexican government during the campaign were clearly anti-Trump and were meant to impact those who still felt loyalties south of the border. Clinton carried the Hispanic vote 65% to 29%, but because these voters were heavily concentrated in Blue states, they served to expand her margin in her base areas, but did not carry enough States to win at the Electoral College where Trump triumphed.

            Mexico's "get out the vote" effort still has had an impact. It has supported the sanctuary movement for criminal aliens at the local level with its negative implications for national security and law enforcement.

            A narrow focus on elections, however, misses how foreign governments work to influence American policies every day, in every way they can think of. The purpose of the Senate Intel hearing was to hear from the heads of the six major U.S. intelligence agencies about their assessment of global national security threats. In accordance with the Trump administration's National Defense Strategy, the focus was "great power competition" with Russia and China. Both of these rivals operate English-language TV networks that air in the U.S. as well as other media outlets that present the news in ways favorable to their point of view. They also hire lobbyists to visit Congressional offices to argue their case for policies that benefit them; and against those that do not (such as sanctions). They often enlist American business groups who believe they can profit from better relations, which often translates into advocating appeasement of the bad behavior of Russian and/or Chinese.

            At the Senate hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) raised the issue of the People's Republic of China sponsorship of Confucius Institutes on college campuses across America. Rubio, who has warned schools in his State about Beijing's activities, asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about them. The Director responded, "We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes." Wray continued. "We've been watching that development for a while. It's just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we're watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigations into them."

            According to the Hanban, the Chinese government agency which runs the Confucius Institutes around the world from its Beijing offices, there are 110 CI at U.S. colleges and universities and 501 Confucius Classrooms in American elementary and secondary schools hitting the kids early. In 2011, the Hanban won First Prize at the PRC Ministry of Education's annual "Red Song" contest. The theme was "Following the Communist Party Forever." The Hanban press release claimed that the enthusiasm of its members "ensured the smooth progress of important activities such as the Confucius Institutes" and demonstrated "their boundless love of the Party and their determination of following the Party in its construction of a great China....The themed concert further ignited Hanban staff's patriotic sentiment and enthusiasm for the Party....There is great determination to reinforce efforts made towards the cause of Chinese language promotion internationally." It is the offering of "free" courses to American schools in the Chinese language that induces educators to accept Chinese agents on campus. There history and Beijing's view of the world are then mixed in by teachers sent from China.

             Sen. Rubio also asked Director Wray about "the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in science and mathematics." Wray replied, "The use of non-traditional collectors, especially in the academic setting-whether it's professors, scientists, students-we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country." He said. "And I think the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues....They're exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere," Wray went on, "One of the things we're trying to do is to view the Chinese threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole-of-society threat, on their end. And I think it's going to take a whole-of-society response by us. It's not just the Intelligence Community, but it's raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of defense."

            In past generations, Chinese students and others came to America seeking refuge from tyrants the likes of Mao Zedong and their brutal brand of Communism. Today, the Communists have evolved into nationalists, appealing to ancient times when China was the most advanced and powerful civilization on the planet. Beijing today pushes traditional values and a program to "make China great again" by overcoming the "century of humiliation" they assert was imposed by the West. The campaign is to maintain loyalty to China through cultural ties even among those who have moved to other lands. For many, allegiance is a matter of the heart, not geography.

            When Americans debate and vote on the issues of the day, the assumption is that while views may differ, citizens are trying to find the best policy that will benefit their national community. No such assumption applies to agents of foreign powers who are advancing what serves their interests in competition with ours; a competition that may endanger our very survival. There needs to be a way to clearly distinguish between those whose participation in domestic discourse is legitimate and compatible with the common good and those outside the national orbit whose participation is not legitimate and needs to be regulated or blocked entirely as a matter of overriding security.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.


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