Return to

Jan. 21, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Intel politicization on China revealed

By Bill Gertz
Outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe dropped a political bombshell in a report issued in the final days of the Trump administration, accusing U.S. intelligence analysts of politicization by playing down China‘s role in interference with the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“From my unique vantage point as the individual who consumes all of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence on the People’s Republic of China, I do not believe the majority view expressed by [intelligence community] analysts fully and accurately reflects the scope of the Chinese government’s efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections,” Mr. Ratcliffe stated in a Jan. 7 report.

The DNI said that what he called “the politicization of China election influence reporting” was the result of “undue pressure being brought to bear on analysts who offered an alternative view based on the intelligence.”

The debate centers on whether intelligence analysts emphasized Russian meddling while playing down the role of Beijing during the election. Mr. Ratcliffe said the three-page report raises broader questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence analyses.

The comments followed a more detailed assessment by Barry A. Zulauf, the intelligence community’s ombudsman for politicization. Mr. Zulauf stated in a separate report to Congress that he found a number of examples of faulty analysis on China‘s efforts and a greater emphasis by analysts on Russian interference that he concluded were rooted in analysts’ bias against President Trump.

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

By contrast, Russian affairs analysts promoted clear evidence of Moscow’s meddling, views that were played up in reports and presentations to policymakers.

Mr. Ratcliffe said the issue involved disputes between National Intelligence Council (NIC) analysts under his office and CIA officials who rejected the NIC views.

CIA managers also took steps to pressure intelligence analysts to “withdraw their support” from alternative viewpoints about election-meddling by China “in an attempt to suppress it,” he said.

The NIC analysts said the CIA engaged in politicization of intelligence, and Mr. Ratcliffe said he agreed.

The U.S. intelligence community’s election assessment “gives the false impression that the [national intelligence officer] cyber is the only analyst who holds the minority view on China,” Mr. Ratcliffe said.

“He is not, a fact that the ombudsman found during his research and interviews with stakeholders,” he noted.

“Having consumed election influence intelligence across various analytic communities, it is clear to me that different groups of analysts who focus on election threats from different countries are using different terminology to communicate the same malign actions,” Mr. Ratcliffe said.

For example, analysts defined the terms “influence” and “interference” within groups focused on China and Russia.

Mr. Zulauf noted in his report that, “given analytic differences in the way Russia and China analysts examined their targets, China analysts appeared hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference.”

Mr. Ratcliffe said those differences resulted in election meddling by China and Russia being presented differently to policymakers, “potentially leading to the false impression that Russia sought to influence the election but China did not,” a violation of intelligence tradecraft rules.

Political bias in intelligence reporting is not unprecedented. In 1962, the National Intelligence Estimate incorrectly concluded that Moscow would not place missiles in Cuba, Mr. Ratcliffe said. Then-CIA Director John McCone disagreed with the analysts and discovered the Soviet missiles in U-2 overflights, setting off the Cuban missile crisis.

Mr. Ratcliffe’s comments exposing political bias by CIA analysts on China highlights a problem reported for decades.

In this space on Oct. 27, 2000, Inside the Ring reported that pro-China apologists within the CIA’s analysis section had skewed their reporting to play down the threat posed by Beijing.

The column outraged senior agency officials, who said any suggestion of politicization on China intelligence was wrong and, as then-CIA Director George Tenet put it, “assails the integrity of outstanding analysts.”

Months later, however, a commission of outside experts led by retired Army Gen. John H. Tilelli found CIA analysts were guilty of writing reports with an institutional predisposition to portray China in a favorable light.

The embarrassing Tilelli commission report remains classified.

Michael Pack, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees official U.S. foreign broadcasters, resigned Wednesday.

Mr. Pack was asked by the incoming administration of President Biden to step down, despite having a three-year contract beginning in June 2020 as the first Senate-confirmed chief of the media agency.

“Every president has the right to staff the several thousand political positions available to an administration,” Mr. Pack said in his resignation letter.

“However, the U.S. Agency for Global Media is an independent federal agency, and the person nominated by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislative branch to manage and oversee it is appointed to a three-year term,” he stated. “That means that the leadership of U.S. civilian international broadcasting is meant to be nonpartisan, untethered to alternations in the political regime.”

Mr. Pack said he has focused his time on “reorienting the agency toward its mission and solving its notorious range of problems.”

Those problems included what critics saw as anti-American bias, security lapses and corruption among senior officials.

“I have sought, above all, to help the agency share America’s story with the world objectively and without bias. I had no political agenda coming into USAGM, and I still do not have one,” Mr. Pack said, adding that it was “disheartening” that his dismissal was requested.

“This will long be viewed as a partisan act that harmed an office designed to serve the American people and the national interest,” Mr. Pack said.

“I continue to admire and praise USAGM’s journalists who bring truth to international audiences in the face of even the gravest risks,” he said. “They are heroes. I wish nothing but the best for USAGM.”

Incoming White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan previewed the new administration‘s foreign policy views in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs.

In reviewing two books critical of past American foreign policies, Mr. Sullivan said the Trump administration‘s “America First” approach placed many assumptions about how the U.S. interacts with the world up for debate, including how to deal with strategic competition with China.

For Mr. Sullivan, a new approach will be to combine the leftist foreign policies advocated by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts with the establishment “center” policies of past Democratic and Republican administrations.

“A number of recent meditations, including foreign policy commentaries by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, point the way toward a kind of convergence of the left and the center,” Mr. Sullivan wrote.

Common priorities of the convergence will be “an elevated concern for the distributional effects of international economic policy; a concentration on combating corruption and kleptocracy and neo-fascism; an emphasis on diplomacy over the use of military force; [and] an enduring commitment to democratic allies.”

Also, the left and center views will focus on advances against “global poverty and disease,” he predicted.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to