China ‘Sought to Influence’ Presidential Elections: DNI Ratcliffe

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John Ratcliffe China Election Influence

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said that he believes China “sought to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections” in an unclassified letter sent to Congress. 

Ratcliffe’s letter expressed that he does not believe the “majority view expressed by Intelligence Community (IC) analysts fully and accurately reflects the scope of the Chinese government’s efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections.”

The DNI references a report by the IC’s Analytic Ombudsman, Dr. Barry Zulauf, multiple times. The report is also being transmitted to Congress along with Ratcliffe’s letter, which was prepared in consultation with the Ombudsman in order to make no misrepresentations of Zulauf’s report. 

The Washington Examiner published Ratcliffe’s letter and the Ombudsman’s Report on Jan. 17. The authenticity of the documents has not been officially verified. 

Zulauf found “China analysts were hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference. These analysts appeared reluctant to have their analysis on China brought forward because they tend to disagree with the [Trump] administration’s policies, saying in effect, I don’t want our intelligence used to support those policies.” 

The Ombudsman found this behaviour to be a violation of an Analytic Standard in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. 

Ranking Member Doug Collins (2nd R), R-GA, speaks with U.S. Congresswoman Martha Roby (R), R-AL, and U.S. Congressman John Ratcliffe (C), R-TX, as they attend the House Judiciary Committee’s markup of House Resolution 755, Articles of Impeachment Against President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on December 12, 2019. (Image: by JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images)

Ratcliffe expressed his concerns that “alternative viewpoints on China’s election influence efforts have not been appropriately tolerated, much less encouraged,” noting the Ombudsman also found in his report that there were “strong efforts to suppress analysis of alternatives.” Meanwhile, National Intelligence Council (NIC) officials reported CIA officials rejected NIC coordination and “tried to downplay alternative analyses in their own production” of intelligence products. 

The CIA’s management also took actions “pressuring [analysts] to withdraw their support” from the viewpoint that China did, indeed, seek to influence the 2020 presidential election.

According to Ratcliffe’s letter, the National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for Cyber was cited as the only analyst believing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influenced the election. The DNI found this to be a “false impression,” clarifying that other officers who shared the viewpoint were “a fact that the Ombudsman found during his research and interviews with stakeholders.”

“Placing the NIO Cyber on a metaphorical island by attaching his name alone to the minority view is a testament to both his courage and to the effectiveness of the institutional pressures that have been brought to bear on others who agree with him,” said Ratcliffe. 

These actions were seen as politicization both by Ratcliffe and NIO, according to the Ombudsman’s report.

Ratcliffe also found that “different groups of analysts who focus on election threats from different countries are using different terminology to communicate the same malign actions. Specifically, definitional use of the terms ‘influence’ and ‘interference’ are different between the China and Russia analytic communities.”

The Ombudsman’s report concurred, finding “China analysts appeared hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference.”

It is important to note that while Ratcliffe’s letter references the 2020 presidential election as a standalone statement, Zulauf’s report generally refers to various pre-election Intelligence Community events and assessments.

In a Dec. 3 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, DNI Ratcliffe said the CCP “poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II.” 

“The intelligence is clear: Beijing intends to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the planet economically, militarily, and technologically,” he wrote. “Many of China’s major public initiatives and prominent companies offer only a layer of camouflage to the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.”

In 2018, President Trump issued an Executive Order requiring the Director of National Intelligence to investigate and prepare a report on foreign interference in elections within 45 days of the completion of a federal election. That date was Dec. 18, which has long since passed. If the report has been provided, it has not been publicly disclosed.

Under Trump’s order, sanctions applying to those found participating in foreign election interference are enormous. Entities, such as individuals or corporations who are found to have participated in foreign interference, face having all of their U.S.-based assets blocked by the Department of State and Department of Treasury. 

For a country found interfering in a federal election, the order requires the same sanction to apply to the largest corporation of said country in each major sector, such as energy, banking, or communications.

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  • Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.