Senate intel committee to revive ‘roadshow’ on Chinese threats

Senate China

The Senate Intelligence Committee intends to resume a bipartisan campaign to raise awareness within key segments of the private sector about the dangers of doing business with China, The Record has learned.

The panel is tentatively scheduled to resurrect in November its “roadshow” — classified, one-off briefings with representatives from the U.S. intelligence community that give American business leaders and other top decision-makers greater insights on the potential economic risks their organizations could face when dealing with Beijing.

Committee members convened 13 such sessions over 2018 and 2019 — spearheading presentations for members of the venture capital community, academia, the telecom industry and others — before the effort was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s three years later. We have enormous challenges, from intellectual property theft to China’s extraordinarily aggressive technology investments,” Intelligence chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Record late last week. 

“We need to take this message back on the road,” added Warner, who participated in the previous sessions with panel Republicans Richard Burr (NC), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and John Cornyn (Texas).

Relations between the U.S. and China are under their worst strain in years, with the Biden administration attempting to counter Chinese influence around the globe. The relationship has continued to unravel since July when the U.S. and others accused Beijing of mounting a global digital espionage campaign that compromised tens of thousands of Microsoft Exchange email accounts.

Last week Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the U.S. would work with allies to pressure Beijing on a variety of fronts.

“They’re ripping off our IP, they are not playing by the rules. It’s not a level playing field. And so we need to hold their feet to the fire to make sure that they do that,” she told CNBC.

Meanwhile, China has enacted new rules for cyberspace that further blur the line between the state and commercial companies, including a law that took effect last month which contained vulnerability disclosure provisions stipulating all Chinese security researchers, businesses and foreign companies with a footprint inside the country must report any zero-day flaws to the Communist government.

The regime has also increasingly employed its economic and political clout to crack down on, or bully, those who differ or disagree with it, from the Lithuanian government to a high school in Colorado.

Past classified briefings laid out “strategically, geopolitically, economically” how China operates in the global market and within the U.S., said William Evanina, founder and CEO of the Evanina Group and the former director for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC).

“We would say, ‘We need to have your eyes wide open … Here’s the facts you need to have. Here are the cyber and national security laws in China that you need to be aware of. You need to make sure that your general counsel is aware of what the data sharing requirements are. If you’re going to have a joint venture, know that this company is obligated to do the following three things for your company,’” according to Evanina, who partook in some of the sessions with lawmakers.

The meetings augmented the work performed by the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and the NCSC — all of which routinely consult the private sector about potential threats.

The roadshow typically saw Senate Intelligence members, or senior personnel from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), introduce the briefers from the various agencies before eventually opening the floor so that lawmakers and officials could field questions and receive feedback directly from industry leaders.

That lawmakers presented a unified, bipartisan front about the potential dangers lent “gravitas” to the sessions, according to Evanina, who gave similar presentations alongside FBI Director Christopher Wray and former Attorney General William Barr.

“That really alleviated any misconceptions of what this was about,” he said. He noted that Warner’s past as a telecommunications executive also helped get the business community’s attention. 

Rubio, now the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, called the last round of briefings “successful,” adding he hoped the next batch would include state and local governments who are the targets of influence operations by Beijing.

“I was a state legislator. If I went to a state legislator and explained that they would be the target of a Chinese influence operation they wouldn’t understand it. It doesn’t make any sense,” he told The Record last week. “Until you explain the broader perspective. From the Chinese perspective, they’re trying to influence what future members of Congress, future federal leaders, think about the narrative China’s proposing.”

For instance, Rubio said, Beijing is “aggressively pushing” pro-Chinese misinformation around the globe, like the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 originated from a military installation in the U.S.

There are “a lot” of sectors to cover, Rubio added, including ones that may have already had a classified session.

“When you meet with the telecommunications industry you’re not covering everybody in one roadshow meeting, so there’s more work to be done there.”

Warner agreed misinformation should be included in the upcoming forums, but noted that the panel is still trying to determine the right roster of briefers from law enforcement and the clandestine community, as well which GOP members will participate.

He said there needs to be a “level of sophistication” to the revived effort, so that the warnings are focused on the Communist regime and isn’t perceived as ginning up animosity toward the Chinese people, including foreign students studying in the U.S.

“This is not about bashing. But it is about realizing the threat and challenge continues to evolve and we need to be ready,” according to Warner, who said he had spoken with DNI Avril Haines about the tour and that she was receptive to it. 

ODNI referred questions about the future plans back to the committee.

Evanina suggested the forthcoming briefings include portions on emerging technologies and the Internet of Things — especially since the pandemic forced much of the global workforce to work remotely, leaving organizations increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

He urged Warner and Rubio to boost the roadshow’s reach by deputizing their fellow lawmakers to conduct briefings around the country.

“Partner with other organizations that can help you — other committees, other congressmen, other senators — to force multiply and make it an awareness Ponzi scheme,” Evanina said.

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