China is continuing cyberattacks against government and private sector networks aimed at obtaining intellectual property to support China's military buildup and economic modernization, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton says.
Bolton said that as a result, the United States is going on the attack against Chinese and other foreign hackers using new authorities outlined in a recently signed presidential memorandum.
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Asked if China has lessened intellectual property theft through cyberattacks, Bolton said: "No. I think this is one of the reasons why one of our priorities here was to replace PPD-20 with what we call NSPM-13, National Security Presidential Memorandum-13, which dramatically changed the oversight and approval process for offensive cyber operations."
The Obama administration directive, Presidential Policy Directive-20, was signed in October 2012 and made public by renegade National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The 20-page order, labeled "top-secret," created a restrictive approval process for conducting cyberattacks, such as requiring presidential approval and obtaining foreign government approval for operations.
Bolton said the new order gives greater authority to operators in the military and intelligence community and will help establish deterrence against foreign cyberattacks.
"You can't get to a system of deterrence, in cyberspace or anywhere else, unless you convince your adversaries that they will pay a higher price for engaging in their offensive cyber operations than they ever hope to gain," Bolton said in an interview in the White House West Wing. "And we have started that in late 2018 [when] we got NSPM-13 adopted."
The first use was prior to the November 2018 election when the military's Cyber Command conducted operations against known Russian operatives linked in the past to disinformation operations and interference in elections.
"I think we had a real impact in preventing Russian efforts to influence the elections in 2018," Bolton said. "We've begun, underline the word begun, to establish structures of deterrence in cyberspace. But we've got a long way to go. We come off of eight years of total passivity by the Obama administration which has left us very vulnerable."
The New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. cyber forces have increased penetrations into Russia's electric power grid as a warning to Moscow that the United States is prepared to conduct attacks on the electrical power infrastructure.
U.S. intelligence in the past has identified both Chinese and Russian cyber actors conducting similar penetrations of the American electric grids. The intrusions were believed to be cyber reconnaissance by those states' military forces in preparation for a future conflict that will involve so-called blackout warfare.
Bolton explained that the new presidential order seeks to lay the foundations of authorities "so that different agencies that might conduct cyber offensive know what the objectives are."
"As I say, we've completely revised the approval and oversight process," he said. "So I'm not saying we've achieved the goal, but I'm saying we've made a very important start. I wish we could talk more about what we're doing. It's highly classified."
The national security adviser said he wished he was able to be more open about the efforts so the American public would know that the administration is taking threats to U.S. elections and other targets seriously. "It would be helpful for the rest of the world to know just how serious we are about this," he said.
On the recent presidential order designed to protect against Chinese telecommunications threats, Bolton said the administration has closely looked at threats to telecommunications both domestically and worldwide, and not just government communications.
Last month, the White House issued a presidential order that blocks foreign adversary telecommunications companies from selling equipment to U.S. firms.
The generic order did not name companies such as Huawei Technologies and ZTE. However, the Commerce Department, in a parallel action, added Huawei, a huge state-linked telecommunications firm, to its so-called entities list that severely restricts U.S. businesses from working with the company.
"Huawei is a state actor," Bolton said. "We've got to stop thinking of some of these Chinese firms as if they're traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Even when they issue equity that's traded on the Shanghai exchange, or the Hong Kong exchange, they're controlled by the People's Liberation Army, or by some state agent in Beijing. These are not capitalist companies. We're not abandoning our free market principles. We're saying you're not going to use a state-owned enterprise basically to undercut us, to treat us unfairly, in competitive terms. Or to get backdoors into our telecoms."
Bolton said the United States "awoke late to the threat and the danger."
"But I think we're making very, very rapid strides," he said. "We can see the growth and understanding in our friendly and allied countries around the world. We're still working through some of the technical issues. Should we have been cognizant of this threat 10, 15 years ago? Yes. Are we suffering a little bit because we let our guard down? Yes. But are we moving as fast as we can now to repair this and to safeguard our telecoms, our artificial intelligence, our communications? Yeah. Absolutely."
On the trade dispute with China, Bolton said Trump is expected to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit meeting to discuss trade negotiations, and Beijing is far from meeting American expectations for resolving the dispute, Bolton says.
"Obviously the impasse in the trade talks will be a big issue," Bolton said. "The president believes that China is under pressure and that Xi Jinping will want to make a deal. They need to do a lot in terms of structural reform in the economy. They need to stop pursuing mercantilist policies like stealing our intellectual property and forced technology transfer. "
Bolton said the core objective of policies being pursued by Trump is a recognition that political and economic power stem from a strong economy.
"And China's gotten a stronger economy by pilfering our intellectual property among other things," he said noting that both Japan and the European Union agree on that.
The subject was raised during the president's talks in Japan with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"So we'll see what happens at the G20," Bolton said. "We'll see if the negotiations begin again. It's very important that we get this right."
Bolton, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, also said Trump wants to bring China into negotiations with Russia over extending the New START arms treaty that expires in 2021.
"People say, ‘Well why would you do that?' Because Cold War-style, bilateral strategic arms negotiations don't make sense when you're in a multipolar nuclear world," he said.
The problem is that an agreement with Moscow, like the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, limits the United States and Russia but not China.
"Now China says, ‘Oh, but we have so few nuclear weapons now it wouldn't be fair to include us.' Well, sure, if I were the Chinese I'd probably say the same thing," Bolton said. "So they remain outside an arms control framework and can build up to an unlimited level. The whole point is to find a way, whether it's in a trilateral negotiation, or maybe you could consider even more nuclear powers involved. But looking at this as a bipolar nuclear world, when it's manifestly a multipolar nuclear world, is just conceptually completely backward."
China so far has rejected U.S. offers to come to the nuclear bargaining table, but Bolton says it is important to try to get the Chinese to join arms talks because the risks of nuclear arms proliferation is growing and the danger that more nations are getting nuclear arms is increasing.
"If you want to pursue arms control, you can't do it an in old-fashioned, outmoded, Cold War-era style," he said. "You've got to look at the world we're in, not the world where arms control was such an important part of the U.S.-Soviet relationship."
Regarding North Korea, Bolton said the president is willing to again talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un despite the unsuccessful summit in Hanoi in February.
Trump is different from most other leaders in that "he's willing to talk," he noted. "We talked in Hanoi about what he called the ‘Big Deal' that Kim Jong Un wasn't willing to take."
Kim, going back to the earlier summit in Singapore, was shown by Trump what the economic future of North Korea could be if the North Korean leader would make a strategic decision to give up his quest for deliverable nuclear weapons. "So the president's holding the door open," Bolton said. Kim Jong Un "just has to walk through it. He hasn't done it yet. But the door is still open."
Bolton dismissed reports that he has differed from the president on North Korea's recent test of short-range ballistic missiles.
Kim promised Trump there would be no intercontinental ballistic missile tests and no yield-bearing nuclear tests.
North Korea recently fired off several short-range ballistic missiles "so the president doesn't believe that broke Kim Jong Un's promise," Bolton said.
The tests, however, broke Security Council Resolution 1695 that Bolton knows since he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time it was written. "And it said it prohibited all ballistic missile testing. It did not have a limitation on range," he said. "So there's no difference between the president and me on that."
On New START extension, Bolton said: "There's no decision but I think it's unlikely."
Most Republicans who voted in 2010 on ratifying New START opposed the treaty, primarily because the pact has no provisions or limitations on tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons.
"And that flaw remains today," he said. "So simply extending it, extends the basic flaw."
Additionally, the rapid development of new strategic weapons by China and Russia, such as ultra-high speed hypersonic glide vehicles, and other new delivery vehicles "are simply not effectively covered by New START."
"So to extend [New START] for five years and not take these new delivery system threats into account would be malpractice," he said. "People say, ‘Oh but my goodness New START is going to expire in 2021 and we won't have an arms control agreement, I'll just tell you as an old arms control negotiator, if you really want to negotiate, you can do it fast."
Bolton concluded by noting that the current period is "a time of real testing for American national security."
"A lot of the bills that were incurred during the Obama administration by massive budget cuts, failure to pay attention to serious threats, are now coming due," he said. "So the president's got a lot of issues he's got to try and confront and he's doing it, as he put it, that's what America First means—you put American interests first."