United States intelligence officials issued a public warning on Friday that China was “expanding its influence efforts” in the US before the presidential election, along with Russia and Iran, but Democrats briefed on the matter said the threat was far more urgent than what the administration described.
The warning came from William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, in a statement 100 days before Americans go to the polls. “We’re primarily concerned with China, Russia and Iran — although other nation-states and nonstate actors could also do harm to our electoral process,” the statement said.
The warning about China came at a moment of extraordinary tension between Beijing and Washington, only days after the US indicted two Chinese hackers on charges of stealing intellectual property, including for the country’s main intelligence service, and evicted Chinese diplomats from their consulate in Houston.
The intelligence warning on Friday did not accuse the Chinese of trying to hack the vote; instead it said they were using their influence “to shape the policy environment in the US” and to pressure politicians “it views as opposed to China’s interests”.
Russia, the warning said, was continuing to “spread disinformation in the US that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process,” and it described Iran as an emerging actor in election interference, seeking to spread disinformation and “recirculating anti-US content.”
The statement was short on details, reminiscent of the vague warnings that the director of national intelligence turned out starting in October 2016 that, in retrospect, failed to seize the attention of officials and voters before the last presidential election.
In a statement issued a few hours later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was joined by the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and two key Democrats on intelligence oversight committees in saying that the descriptions of malign activity were “so generic as to be almost meaningless.”