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Political Influence Operations, with Darren E. Tromblay

August 27, 2018

Xinhua's Hong Kong headquarters. CREDIT: Ming Xia (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Darren Tromblay. He served in the U.S. intelligence community as an intelligence analyst for more than a decade. He's also author of Political Influence Operations: How Foreign Actors Seek to Shape U.S. Policy Making.

Darren, thank you very much for coming by today.

Let's take a look at your book Political Influence Operations. How would you describe the political influence operations, particularly with an emphasis on China, being conducted in the United States?

DARREN TROMBLAY: First of all, before I start off, let me just clarify that I am speaking on my own behalf here today and not representing the views of any U.S. government entity.

With that, China has pursued multiple campaigns to directly and indirectly influence U.S. policymaking. At the most basic level, China historically attempted to develop support, including financial assistance, for political candidates at the sub-federal levels.

Beijing has also leveraged its relationship with the U.S. business sector in furtherance of specific objectives. In one clear-cut instance, it made a significant deal with a U.S. aerospace company which was contingent upon that company's lobbying for export licenses to ship specific technology to China.

I also find China's diplomatic courtship of sub-federal political entities to be troubling. For instance, in 2017, after the United States withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, China and the state of California forged an environment-oriented partnership.

This type of international interaction helps China to establish a leading role in the establishment of new norms. At the same time, China took a swipe at Washington by picking off an individual state to pursue a foreign policy initiative that the White House rightly or wrongly rejected.

In addition to its specific efforts to infiltrate politics or pressure politicians on specific issues, China has pursued a number of academic and cultural initiatives. These are arguably directed at enhancing Beijing's soft power by creating acceptance among the American voting population for China as a responsible international power. Although they do not directly advance specific policy objectives, these Chinese initiatives create a more conducive environment for the emergence of policies that are consistent with Beijing's interests.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you also covered Russia. How do you see Russia's operations?

DARREN TROMBLAY: I mention this in the book as well. I see Russia as conducting more smash-and-grab type influence operations. China is in it for the longer term. Russia has shown itself similarly to the Soviet Union to be more about destabilizing the policymaking process and preventing consensus on U.S. policy.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you speak a little bit about how these operations are conducted?

DARREN TROMBLAY: Yes, of course. China's influence operations tend to co-opt existing U.S. institutions. This is clearly the case in the academic sector, where support from Chinese entities has helped China to acquire a foothold with academic institutions. Examples include financial support from a Chinese telecom firm to an identified U.S. think tank and, of course, the establishment of Confucius Institutes, which are controlled by the Chinese government, at brand-name U.S. universities.

I am also concerned about Chinese acquisitions in the media field. Investments in the production and distribution of films and even video games provide opportunities to highlight the non-threatening and attractive elements of Chinese culture as well as to develop the technological capabilities for the production of sophisticated propaganda.

Additionally, China has attempted to establish platforms that operate within U.S. paradigms. For instance, it endeavored to establish an outpost of a Chinese think tank in the United States and has also endeavored to establish U.S. permutations of its media outlets. However, these approaches have been less successful due to these ventures' heavy-handedness.

Chinese institutions seem to need American interlocutors to find an audience, and this dynamic is evident in the various think tank-to-think tank collaborations that China has supported. Of course, these amount to Chinese state-run entities, including those with military and intelligence ties exploiting the hard-earned reputations of esteemed American institutions to transmit China's messages. This is particularly problematic if the information which China is peddling ends up being adopted by U.S. institutions in their own products, which are consumed by policymakers and others.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's a transmission of the messages and then the adoption of the point of view.

DARREN TROMBLAY: Correct, especially when the adoption does not explicitly identify the originator.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say that's the primary goal of these operations, or are there other goals?

DARREN TROMBLAY: It's interesting. Many of these operations seem to be about establishing resources, developing access to politicians, cultivating public opinion, gaining inroads to the U.S. academic sector, etc., instead of achieving specific objectives. How China will leverage the soft power capital it is accruing largely remains to be seen.

If China does have a current concrete objective, it is in portraying the country as a viable commercial partner to the extent that foreign companies are willing to submit to coercive demands on intellectual property. Additionally, China's courting of the American public may be a way to prevent decisive U.S. action in response to the challenges that Beijing is posing in the South China Sea.

DEVIN STEWART: You also have mentioned the various instruments in your book. You talk about lobbyists, the media, and academia. What is the role of state media, philanthropic giving, political contributions, and think tank activities as part of these campaigns?

DARREN TROMBLAY: That's a pretty broad question. Let's start with the media.

No one is going to mistake Xinhua for the Associated Press or China Central Television (CCTV) for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). However, the fragmented, maybe even shattered, American media environment has allowed dubious content, ranging from Russia's RT to the carnival barkers of bizarre conspiracy theories, to fill vacuums and gain a foothold with certain audiences. Chinese media could occupy a similar niche if it was spouting a narrative that a segment of the U.S. audience was predisposed to accept, but it does not have the credibility to drive a narrative.

The media piece that concerns me is the hiring of American talent by the American outposts of these outlets since this acquisition of expertise may provide China with a more nuanced understanding about how to connect with a U.S. audience.

China's philanthropy only goes as far as its strategic interests. Its Confucius Institute network comes with strings attached that have led U.S. academic institutions to engage in self-censorship in order to remain on China's good side.

DEVIN STEWART: And to receive the funding.

DARREN TROMBLAY: Exactly. Political contributions are China's way to buy into the U.S. political process. We saw several examples of this in the 1990s. Quite frankly, China doesn't belong in this environment at all.

Think tanks, as I mentioned before, are certainly a vulnerability that China is positioned to exploit in furtherance of shaping informed dialogue that shapes policy. Multiple Chinese think tanks have also been linked to that country's intelligence and security services.

DEVIN STEWART: So they aren't really independent think tanks.

DARREN TROMBLAY: No. You'll never have independent institutions under an authoritarian government.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. Thank you for describing how these campaigns work. Of course, the big question is effectiveness. What are you seeing as the impact of these campaigns?

DARREN TROMBLAY: It's difficult if not impossible to measure how specific campaigns have shaped perceptions of China. I certainly don't think its efforts are terribly convincing. After all, the proof is in the pudding. China's aggressiveness in the geographic and cyber realms is a very different narrative than the one that Beijing is attempting to peddle to external audiences.

Furthermore, even its influence operations, especially its Confucius Institutes, have elicited a widespread backlash from across the political spectrum. It's a rare issue on which The Nation and The National Review agree.

However, I do think that there is room for research about the impact that Chinese-driven entertainment content has on public opinion. There is also the question of how Chinese funding is driving issues in the think tank and lobbying worlds, where an influx of resources to U.S. institutions might give critical mass to existing but otherwise low-profile issues. It's not that they're going to introduce a new narrative, but I could certainly see them skewing the discussion.

DEVIN STEWART: And they can prevent certain things from being discussed.

DARREN TROMBLAY: Absolutely, and we've seen that on U.S. university campuses where, as I mentioned, the strings attached to the Confucius Institutes have led U.S. academic institutions to engage in self-censorship in order to avoid offending their benefactors.

DEVIN STEWART: In Hollywood as well, right?

DARREN TROMBLAY: Absolutely. Dalian Wanda was making acquisitions left and right not only in the production side of things but in the distribution side of content, so it provides another way in which to choke off offensive voices.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we go, Darren, do you want to offer some suggestions on how the United States might respond? Do we even need to think about responding? We're having the discussion, which is good.

DARREN TROMBLAY: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

Look, the United States is not well-postured to combat foreign influence campaigns, Chinese or otherwise. America's framework, including the Foreign Agents Registration Act, otherwise known as FARA, and the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), for disrupting external manipulation of domestic actors is anchored in a law enforcement approach. However, foreign actors' influence campaigns often skirt illegality, adhering to the letter but not the spirit of the law, even though their outcomes harm U.S. interests by marginalizing the voices of the American electorate.

Furthermore, Washington has imposed additional limitations on its ability to comprehend the extent of foreign influence. The FBI, according to its own officials, has focused on a subset of foreign actors, intelligence officers, even though governments use a far broader range of proxies to advance their interests. National security concerns do not cease to exist simply because an individual is not part of a formal intelligence service such as China's MSS.

Consistent with this understanding that there is a whole-of-government threat, the United States needs to broaden its approach to ensuring national security. A specific point that I'd like to make is the need for reforming the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which currently emphasizes transactions pertaining to traditional hard-power national security issues. Congress needs to broaden the CFIUS bailiwick to curb foreign acquisition of platforms for influence, such as communications resources whether in the entertainment or news sectors.

To effectively counter foreign influence campaigns, the United States needs to focus on intelligence collection and disruption rather than criminal investigation and prosecution. The objectives should be to ensure the transparency and expose foreign government-driven influence campaigns.

The United States set a historical precedent for this in the 1980s with its Active Measures Working Group, which existed to publicly debunk Soviet disinformation. Such an iteration of a modern mechanism would serve the United States well today.

Furthermore, the U.S. government needs to enact measures to eradicate blind spots that foreign actors can exploit. For instance, while FARA and the LDA require public disclosures, there is no specific requirement for congressional staffers to report when they have been in contact with foreign officials. By strengthening transparency, the United States' robust civil society institutions, investigative journalists, etc., will be able to shine a light on vulnerabilities to foreign meddling.

DEVIN STEWART: That was Darren Tromblay. He is author of Political Influence Operations: How Foreign Actors Seek to Shape U.S. Policy Making.

Darren, thanks again.

DARREN TROMBLAY: Oh, absolutely.

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