China certainly has waged influence campaigns abroad, including on U.S. soil, and the activities of its military hacking units are notorious. Furthermore, U.S.-China tensions escalated significantly under President Donald Trump. So the allegations that Beijing tried to influence the 2020 election in Joe Biden’s favor were, on their face, plausible.
It's bad to accuse even bad actors of doing things they didn't actually do because it increases the risk of international conflict.
But just because something is plausible doesn’t mean it’s true — and intelligence analysts have concluded that the claims made by Trump’s administration officials weren’t.
Such as Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe telling Fox News in August, “China is using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing.”
Or Attorney General William Barr telling CNN in September that he had “seen the intelligence” and believed China was the leader in election interference.
Or White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien asserting a few days later in a press briefing that China had “the most massive program to influence the United States politically.”
Instead, a report declassified by the National Intelligence Council on Monday provides overwhelming evidence that these officials’ characterizations of China’s actions were inaccurate.
The report assessed with high confidence that “China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts” targeting the outcome of the election. “China … did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling.”
The most generous interpretation of the Trump administration’s misassessment was that officials were wrongly conflating Beijing’s attempts to influence specific policies of concern to it with election manipulation, i.e., direct attempts to sway the outcome of an election.
U.S. intel report finds Russia and Iran tried to influence the 2020 electionMarch 16, 202102:08
But there is evidence the motivation was more self-interested. In January, a separate report by the DNI ombudsman indicated that Ratcliffe and his personal staff repeatedly clashed with experienced career intelligence analysts, resulting in intel that was “delayed, distorted or obstructed out of concern over policymaker reactions or for political reasons.” In fact, China analysts reportedly grew fearful their reports would be “misused by senior political appointees to exaggerate Chinese attempts to influence the election … in an effort to assuage the president,” the Washington Post reported.
It should go without saying that manufacturing false allegations against foreign states to score domestic political points is not just wrong but exceedingly dangerous. It's bad to accuse even bad actors of doing things they didn't actually do because it increases the risk of international conflict. It also gives them little reason to refrain from bad actions if they get blamed anyway. And just because the claims didn’t lead to a war in this case doesn’t mean they couldn’t have.
We have only to remember 2002-03 when misleading and selectively edited intelligence allegedly proving the existence of an active Iraqi chemical weapon program was presented by the George W. Bush administration as a casus belli to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
To be sure, Saddam was a terrible dictator and had brutally used chemical weapons in the past. But it was not the case that he was actively building up an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction or was allied with Al Qaeda. (The discovery of some decommissioned chemical arms in storage does not change that, by the way, since they weren’t part of an active weapons program and were in nearly unusable condition.)
Yet on that basis, the U.S. committed itself to invade Iraq, and the disastrous consequences of that campaign continue to impact the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. Fortunately, the accusations of Chinese electoral interference were not made in a context of a possible war. But what if U.S.-China tensions had spiked for some unrelated reason last winter? The inaccurate allegations of a “massive” Chinese election interference operation could have been cited to justify a harsher, more escalatory response to the crisis from Washington and persuaded the American people that force was justified.
The potential impact at home from the Trump administration’s intelligence distortions is no less serious. By opportunistically (and inaccurately) claiming China was manipulating the election in favor of Biden, Ratcliffe contributed to the widespread belief among Trump supporters that Biden stole the election — a belief that continues to seriously threaten the integrity of the government and the unity of the country.
False allegations of Chinese manipulation may also have fanned the flames of anti-Asian racism in the United States linked to Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. This has manifested in a rise in violent racist attacks on Asian Americans.
And there’s another major problem stemming from this concocted intelligence: It undermines the integrity of other intelligence that needs to be taken seriously. Trump’s team seems to have been hyping allegations about China to detract from the actual election interference being waged by Russia on Trump’s behalf, doing little to stop that much more dangerous scourge. And, ironically, it also deflected attention from another foreign actor that really was trying to help Biden, per the new report: Iran.
We live in a complex world, and whether you’re a hawk or a dove, the findings of intelligence agencies will sometimes be inconvenient. But Congress and the American people are owed the most honest analysis possible from their intelligence agencies. Entertaining spurious allegations against other countries for domestic gain can not only damage America’s foreign relations but further divide the country from within.