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Intel chief Dan Coats warns of China's 'potent' cyber threat during Citadel event

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Citadel Cyber Security

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats answers questions after speaking at the 2018 Citadel Intelligence & Cyber Security Conference on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats sounded the alarm about foreign interference in the U.S. democratic process during a speech Tuesday in Charleston — but he wasn't talking about Russia this time.

Coats dedicated most of his 10-minute keynote address at The Citadel Intelligence and Cyber Security Conference to discussing the ambitions and strategies of China in the areas of cyberwarfare and intelligence gathering. 

"In recent months, I have spoken out candidly about the persistent and pervasive Russian effort to undermine our democracy. This challenge continues to be at the forefront of our current threat environment," Coats said, alluding to public pronouncements about the 2016 election process that put him at odds with President Donald Trump this summer.

"Having said this, we also face a separate challenge that is more methodical than the threat posed by Russia," Coats said, later adding: "In contrast to Russia, China often executes its strategy in a more deliberate and subtle manner that tends to generate less media and public attention."

Coats' speech comes a little more than a year after the U.S. Department of Justice charged 36-year-old Chinese national Yu Pingan with using malicious computer code to attack three unnamed U.S. companies. The same code was later used in an attack on U.S. Office of Personnel Management computers and on multiple insurance companies, according to an August 2017 report in The New York Times.

While Coats' speech Tuesday was short on new technical details about perceived threats, he said the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has been "among the most active foreign states conducting cyber activities against United States interests." 

"The Chinese government uses all of the capabilities at their disposal to influence U.S. policies, spread propaganda, manipulate the media and pressure individuals, including students, critical of Chinese policies," Coats said before a packed audience in The Citadel's Holliday Alumni Center. "China has also targeted state and local governments critical of officials. It is trying to exploit divisions between the federal and local levels on policy and uses investments and other strategies to expand its influence."

Coats also criticized the Chinese government for ratcheting up social controls and surveillance within its own borders. He did not mention Google by name, but the company's capitulation to Chinese censorship mandates has been in the news this month. At least one senior Google research scientist, Jack Poulson, resigned in protest after the company agreed to remove content about human rights, free speech and political protest on a Chinese version of its search engine, according to a report in The Intercept.

Since Xi Jinping took power as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, China has abandoned its previous strategy of "hiding its strengths and biding its time," Coats said. The government's crackdown on dissidents, as well as racial and religious minorities, has worried international human rights organizations this year.

Coats made specific reference to recent reports that the Chinese government is holding as many as 1 million ethnic-minority Muslims in internment camps in the country's northwest for "patriotic re-education," requiring them to reject their ethnic identities and religious beliefs. 

"More ominously from a cyber perspective, Chinese officials in the Muslim northwest have instituted high-tech surveillance measures, including the collection of DNA and other bio-data throughout the region, with Chinese technology companies at the forefront of these actions," Coats said.

Coats was a featured speaker at The Citadel's annual conference, where he encouraged cadets from the public military college to pursue careers in U.S. intelligence services. Traditionally a major conduit for military service, the college has spent recent years expanding its course offerings and majors in the areas of engineering, cybersecurity, intelligence analysis and nursing.

Coats answered pre-approved questions from students and took no questions from the news media. Responding to a question submitted by a University of Mississippi student about the growing role of artificial intelligence in the U.S. intelligence community, Coats reassured the student that there will be no shortage of work left for humans to do in countering international threats.

"Don't worry," Coats said. "There will be plenty of jobs."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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