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Nov. 8, 2018
Notes from the Pentagon

Election interference deterred?
Threats by the Trump administration to retaliate for any foreign interference in the midterm elections appear to have deterred China and Russia from attempting to disrupt the voting or vote tallying Tuesday.

President Trump said he saw no information that either nation intervened in the election.

Asked at the White House on Wednesday if there was any sign of Russian or Chinese meddling, Mr. Trump said: “No. We’re going to make a full report.”

The president praised the efforts of security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies for working to prevent any meddling while criticizing the Obama administration for its inaction against Russia for trying to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

“Unlike the previous administration, we’ve done a lot of work on that issue,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time. It gets very little coverage in the papers. And we have been working very hard on China and Russia and everybody else looking into our elections or meddling with our elections.”

In the weeks before the election, the administration issued veiled threats to conduct counter cyberattacks and impose sanctions and other punitive steps if foreign attacks on the election infrastructure was detected.

Former National Security Council Chief of Staff Fred Fleitz said the White House directed months of government security, intelligence and law enforcement efforts to block and respond to foreign election-meddling.

He said in an interview this week that the administration was prepared to take strong action in response to foreign election-meddling.

Mr. Fleitz said he participated in interagency meetings on the problem and noted that policies were adopted that would hold any nations or non-state hackers accountable for any cyberattacks or influence operations targeting the elections.

The administration has warned that those engaged in such activities would face “dire consequences,” he said.

Security analysts believe the threats of retaliation helped deter the Chinese and Russians from engaging in major influence operations or cyberoperations.

Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in an online post that law enforcement agencies alerted the social media giant on Sunday to foreign pages that appeared to be engaged in “inauthentic behavior.”

A total of 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts tied to suspect activities were blocked.

“Almost all the Facebook pages associated with these accounts appear to be in the French or Russian languages, while the Instagram accounts seem to have mostly been in English — some were focused on celebrities, others political debate,” Mr. Gleicher said, adding that the company is investigating whether the accounts were the work of the Russia-based Internet Research Agency or other foreign entities.

The agency was identified by American intelligence agencies as playing a major role in the 2016 Russian election-meddling operations.

In a joint statement issued the day before the election, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, (now former) Attorney General Jeff Sessions, DNI Dan Coats, and FBI Director Christopher Wray said election infrastructure had been hardened against foreign attack.

“Our goal is clear: ensure every vote is counted and counted correctly. At this time we have no indication of compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would prevent voting, change vote counts, or disrupt the ability to tally votes,” the officials stated.

The leaders said that foreign actors — Russia in particular — were still trying to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions and to “sow discord” in the United States. The activities include the spread of false information about political processes and candidates, disseminating propaganda on social media and other tactics.

“Our agencies have been making preparations for nearly two years in advance of these elections and are closely engaged with officials on the ground to help them ensure the voting process is secure,” the statement said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is no longer trying to hide his country’s development of an advanced military capable of defeating the United States, according to a forthcoming report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

“China signaled a decisive end to its more than quarter-century-old guidance to ‘hide your capabilities and bide your time, absolutely not taking the lead’ as President Xi issued a series of new foreign affairs and military policy directives calling on China to uncompromisingly defend its interests and actively promote changes to the international order,” according to a late draft of the commission’s annual report.

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was credited with putting forth the bide-your-time strategy, based on ancient Chinese strategists who advanced ways for a weaker power to defeat a stronger one.

China’s military has employed deception about its military buildup for decades, constantly stating publicly that its development of new missiles, warships, aircraft and nuclear forces posed no threat. The strategy has largely worked as both U.S. intelligence and policy officials for several decades have underestimated Chinese security intentions in assessing Beijing’s objectives as those of a normal state and not a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship.

Typical of the benign view of China, which is being rejected by the Trump administration, is that of former acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Susan Thornton, who resigned in July after withdrawing her nomination to formally take the post under pressure from conservatives in the administration and Congress.

Ms. Thornton stated in an interview with Japan’s Asahi newspaper that she disagrees with the Trump administration’s get-tough approach to China.

“They have a political reason for bashing China. I’m not a politician,” Ms. Thornton said, adding that if the United States fails to deal with China, “we’re in for a very difficult future.”

Asked if the administration is moving in the wrong direction on China, Ms. Thornton said: “That’s my belief, yes. In order to get progress on areas where you have differences, you have to sit down and talk through and figure out what bottom lines are and who can come this direction, who can come that direction.”

Fred Fleitz, who stepped down last week as chief of staff for the National Security Council staff, said relations between White House National Security Adviser John Bolton and President Trump remain strong and are complimentary.

“There is just a fabulous relationship between Ambassador Bolton and President Trump, and I think the reason is that their philosophies concerning international relations are so close,” Mr. Fleitz said in an interview Monday.

“The president pushes for ‘America first’ and keeping American safe again,” he said. “John Bolton believes in those things, but he also has a deep belief in protecting American sovereignty. In Bolton’s view, the Constitution is not trumped by the U.N. Charter or multilateralism. He does not want our country to be subservient to U.N. and European elites.”

Mr. Trump agrees, and that is a key reason the two men work well together.

“Bolton has brought intellectual heft to this approach that the president has outlined, to basically keep America safe again,” Mr. Fleitz said.

Mr. Trump has basically jettisoned the traditional diplomatic rulebook when it comes to responding to international crises and opportunities. As a result, the Trump foreign policy has produced significant successes, with Mr. Bolton helping implement the president’s policies — often in the face of significant resistance from within an entrenched government bureaucracy.

“And I think there are many more successes on the way,” said Mr. Fleitz, who will take the reins at the conservative Center for Security Policy in the coming weeks.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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