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Trump Launched CIA Covert Influence Operation Against China

Trump’s 2019 order came after years of warnings from US intelligence, and media, on how China was using bribery and threats to obtain support from developing countries in geopolitical disputes

The CIA operation came in response to years of aggressive covert efforts by China aimed at increasing its global influence, sources said (file Reuters image of Trump and Xi from 2021).


Former US officials have alleged that Donald Trump allowed the CIA to run a secret campaign on Chinese social media aimed at turning opinion against the Xi Jinping government.

Three former officials said the Central Intelligence Agency created a small team of people who used fake internet names to spread negative narratives about Xi’s government while leaking disparaging intelligence to overseas news outlets.

The effort, which began in 2019, has not been previously reported. It followed a decade in which China rapidly expanded its global footprint, forging military pacts, trade deals, and business partnerships with developing nations.


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The CIA team promoted allegations that members of the ruling Communist Party were hiding ill-gotten money overseas and slammed as corrupt and wasteful China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which provides financing for infrastructure projects in the developing world, the sources told Reuters.

Although the US officials declined to provide specific details of these operations, they said the disparaging narratives were based in fact despite being secretly released by intelligence operatives under false cover.

The efforts within China were intended to foment paranoia among top leaders there, forcing its government to expend resources chasing intrusions into Beijing’s tightly controlled internet, two former officials said. “We wanted them chasing ghosts,” one of these former officials said.

Chelsea Robinson, a CIA spokesperson, declined to comment on the existence of the influence program, its goals or impacts.

A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said news of the CIA initiative shows the US government uses the “public opinion space and media platforms as weapons to spread false information and manipulate international public opinion.”


‘Cold War is back’

The CIA operation came in response to years of aggressive covert efforts by China aimed at increasing its global influence, the sources said. During his presidency, Trump pushed a tougher response to China than had his predecessors. The CIA’s campaign signalled a return to methods that marked Washington’s struggle with the former Soviet Union. “The Cold War is back,” said Tim Weiner, author of a book on the history of political warfare.

Reuters was unable to determine the impact of the secret operations or whether the administration of President Joe Biden has maintained the CIA programme. Kate Waters, a spokesperson for the Biden administration’s National Security Council, declined to comment on the programme or whether it remains active.

Two intelligence historians said that when the White House grants the CIA covert action authority, through an order known as a presidential finding, it often remains in place across administrations.

Trump, now the Republican frontrunner for president, has suggested he will take an even tougher approach toward China if re-elected president in November. Spokespeople for Trump and his former national security advisers, John Bolton and Robert O’Brien, who both served the year the covert action order was signed, declined to comment.

The operation against Beijing came with significant risk of escalating tensions with the United States, given the power of China’s economy and its ability to retaliate through trade, said Paul Heer, a former senior CIA analyst on East Asia when told of the presidential authorization. For example, after Australia called for an investigation inside China probing the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Beijing blocked billions of dollars in Australian trade through agricultural tariffs.

Trump’s 2019 order came after years of warnings from US intelligence, and media reports, on how China was using bribery and threats to obtain support from developing countries in geopolitical disputes as it attempted to sow division in the United States through front groups.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing follows a “principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and does not interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States.”

A year earlier, Trump gave the CIA greater powers to launch offensive cyber operations against US adversaries after numerous Russian and Chinese cyber attacks against American organizations, Yahoo News reported. Reuters could not independently confirm the existence of the earlier order.

Sources described the 2019 authorization as a more ambitious operation. It enabled the CIA to take action not only in China but also in countries around the world where the United States and China are competing for influence. Four former officials said the operation targeted public opinion in Southeast Asia, Africa and the South Pacific.

“The feeling was China was coming at us with steel baseball bats and we were fighting back with wooden ones,” a former national security official with direct knowledge of the finding said.

Matt Pottinger, a senior National Security Council official at the time, crafted the authorization, three former officials said. It cited Beijing’s alleged use of malign influence, allegations of intellectual property theft and military expansion as threats to US national security, one of those former officials said.

Pottinger said he would not comment on the “accuracy or inaccuracy of allegations about US intelligence activities,” adding that “it would be incorrect to assume that I would have had knowledge of specific US intelligence operations.”


Covert messaging

Covert messaging allows the United States to implant ideas in countries where censorship might prevent that information from coming to light, or in areas where audiences wouldn’t give much credence to US government statements, said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist who studies the use of such tactics.

Covert propaganda campaigns were common during the Cold War, when the CIA planted 80 to 90 articles a day in an effort to undermine the Soviet Union, Johnson said. In the 1950s, for example, the CIA created an astrological magazine in East Germany to publish foreboding predictions about communist leaders, according to declassified records.

The covert propaganda campaign against Beijing could backfire, Heer, the former CIA analyst, said. China could use evidence of a CIA influence programme to bolster its decades-old accusations of shadowy Western subversion, helping Beijing “proselytize” in a developing world already deeply suspicious of Washington.

The message would be: “‘Look at the United States intervening in the internal affairs of other countries and rejecting the principles of peaceful coexistence,’” Heer said. “And there are places in the world where that is going to be a resonant message.”

US influence operations also risk endangering dissidents, opposition groups critical of China and independent journalists, who could be falsely painted as CIA assets, said Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who wrote a book on the history of political warfare.


  • Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard




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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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