CIA covert influence operation against China

Donald Trump authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to launch a clandestine campaign on Chinese social media aimed at turning public opinion in China against its government, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the highly classified operation.

Three former officials told Reuters that the CIA created a small team of operatives who used bogus internet identities to spread negative narratives about Xi Jinping’s government while leaking disparaging intelligence to overseas news outlets. The effort, which began in 2019, has not been previously reported.

Although the U.S. officials declined to provide specific details of these operations, they said the disparaging narratives were based in fact despite being secretly released by intelligence operatives under false cover. The efforts within China were intended to foment paranoia among top leaders there, forcing its government to expend resources chasing intrusions into Beijing’s tightly controlled internet, two former officials said. “We wanted them chasing ghosts,” one of these former officials said.

Reuters was unable to determine the impact of the secret operations or whether the administration of President Joe Biden has maintained the CIA program.

Covert messaging allows the United States to implant ideas in countries where censorship might prevent that information from coming to light, or in areas where audiences wouldn’t give much credence to U.S. government statements, said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist who studies the use of such tactics.

Covert propaganda campaigns were common during the Cold War, when the CIA planted 80 to 90 articles a day in an effort to undermine the Soviet Union, Johnson said. In the 1950s, for example, the CIA created an astrological magazine in East Germany to publish foreboding predictions about communist leaders, according to declassified records.

The covert propaganda campaign against Beijing could backfire, said Heer, the former CIA analyst. China could use evidence of a CIA influence program to bolster its decades-old accusations of shadowy Western subversion, helping Beijing “proselytize” in a developing world already deeply suspicious of Washington.

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