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China’s Growing Influence: Intelligence Report Highlights Increased Role in 2022 U.S. Elections

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The Chinese government stepped up its efforts to influence American politics in the 2022 election, a new report released on Monday said, and intelligence officials are trying to learn if Beijing is preparing to further intensify those activities in next year’s presidential election.

American intelligence agencies did not observe a foreign leader directing an interference campaign against the United States in 2022 in the same way Russia did in 2016. But, the report said, the U.S. government found an array of countries engaged in some kind of influence operations.

And Chinese authorities tacitly approved operations to influence a handful of political races in the United States in 2022, according to the report, which represents the intelligence agencies’ joint analytic assessment.

The intelligence agencies have already begun gearing up for influence efforts in the 2024 presidential election, which officials predict will be far more intense than those in 2022, with both China and Russia potentially trying to carry out major operations.

In an interview this month, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the head of U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, said 50 people at the two organizations he leads were “working together to generate insights” on the next election. One major question, he said, is whether China will intensify its work or change tactics.

“What’s the role of China in 2024?” General Nakasone said. “How do they come in? Is it a Russia model? Is it a model that they executed in 2022? Is it something we haven’t seen before?”

The report found that China mostly focused on a few races. While it included few details, U.S. officials have repeatedly highlighted how China worked against a candidate for Congress in New York because of his support for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The Chinese officials trying to influence the vote were operating under longstanding guidance from leaders to work against officials who were perceived to oppose the Chinese government. But the report also said leaders in China had ordered officials to focus their influence operations on Congress, convinced that it “is a locus of anti-China activity.”

The Chinese campaigns were designed to portray the United States as chaotic, ineffective and unrepresentative, the report said. But Chinese leaders did not authorize a “comprehensive” effort, wary of the consequences if they were exposed.

Nevertheless, the report said, Chinese interference in 2022 was more significant than during the presidential race two years earlier because “they did not expect the current administration to retaliate as severely as they feared in 2020.”

The report’s explanation of that conclusion was not declassified and remains redacted in the version released to the public.

Since the 2022 vote, China has been experimenting with artificial intelligence to spread disinformation, General Nakasone said.

The report also found that Russia sought to denigrate Democrats during the 2022 elections largely because of their support for Ukraine, which Russian forces invaded in February of that year.

“Moscow incorporated themes designed to weaken U.S. support for Ukraine into its propaganda,” the report said, “highlighting how election influence operations are a subset of broader influence activity.”

Senior intelligence officials have said Russia was not as active in 2022 because senior officials there were distracted with the war in Ukraine. But many intelligence officials believe Russia will probably try to step up its operations in 2024, as aid for Ukraine has become a more divisive political issue.

In addition, much of Russia’s ability to influence elections was orchestrated by companies controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, including the Internet Research Agency. Mr. Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in August after his failed rebellion and march on Moscow.

U.S. officials said they were unsure about how easily Russian officials would be able to interfere in the election without Mr. Prigozhin and with the apparent demise of the Internet Research Agency.

The intelligence agencies concluded that foreign governments have largely given up on trying to tamper directly with votes or hack into election infrastructure. Instead, they believe that influence campaigns are more effective.

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