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US counterintel strategy emphasizes protection of democracy

WASHINGTON — A new counterintelligence strategy released Monday ranks fighting foreign influence in U.S. elections and countering the theft of research and innovation among the top national security priorities over the next two years.

In focusing on foreign interference in elections, the strategy touches on a sensitive subject for President Donald Trump. The president has been dismissive of intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and he was impeached by the House after multiple officials testified he pressured Ukraine, a critical foreign ally, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The Senate acquitted Trump last week.

The document from the National Security and Counterintelligence Center is meant to guide U.S. intelligence agencies resources and priorities through 2022. Similar to the threats identified in a 2018 strategy, the document identifies the U.S. economy, infrastructure, democracy and supply chains as areas being routinely targeted by foreign governments.

It comes as U.S. officials warn about foreign influence campaigns from Russia aimed at shaping public opinion ahead of the 2020 election and about Chinese efforts to pilfer American technology for Beijing’s economic gain. The report was released hours after the Justice Department announced charges against four members of the Chinese military, accusing them of stealing the personal information of more than 145 million people by hacking into the Equifax credit reporting agency.

The strategy consists of five goals, including protecting critical infrastructure like electrical grids, countering foreign hacking and intelligence operations, and safeguarding the supply chain so that foreign countries can’t compromise it with malicious software or surveillance technology.

“The United States is facing increasingly aggressive and complex threats from foreign intelligence services, as well as state and non-state actors,” Bill Evanina, the director of the counterintelligence center, wrote in an introduction to the strategy document.

The goals identified by the counterintelligence center line up with what Trump administration officials have been publicly discussing in recent weeks.

FBI Director Chris Wray told lawmakers last week that though the FBI had not seen Russian efforts to target elections infrastructure, foreign influence operations — reliant on bots, disinformation and fake online personas — have continued unabated since the 2016 presidential election.

In combating those foreign influence campaigns, the strategy document calls for strengthening government partnerships with social media and technology companies, and doing better at identifying and deterring those activities.

Attorney General William Barr last week warned against what he said was China’s ambition to dominate new, high-speed, wireless networks, citing both economic and national security concerns. He suggested that the U.S. consider investing in Western telecommunications companies that compete against China’s dominant players, including Huawei and ZTE.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the nation’s governors to be wary of China, which he said was targeting individual states to expand political and economic influence.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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