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Agency knew of China’s plans to sway U.S. elections

SHARE Agency knew of China’s plans to sway U.S. elections

A federal investigation into whether the Chinese government had a concerted plan to influence American officeholders began early last year when the National Security Agency surreptitiously monitored a series of communications between Beijing and Chinese officials in the United States, law-enforcement representatives said Wednesday.

Those conversations, the officials said, offered a fragmentary sketch of China's interest in matching the Washington lobbying success of its rival Taiwan, and also suggested that Beijing was prepared to take a drastic step: illegally funneling money to American politicians.As a result, the officials said, the FBI prepared a list of about 30 members of Congress who the bureau thought might be subjects of the Chinese effort. But for reasons that remain unclear, the FBI advised only half a dozen of them in private meetings last June.

Although suspicions of a Chinese government effort to influence U.S. policy has become central to the campaign finance furor swirling around Washington, government agents treated the NSA's report at the time as routine counterintelligence information. That helps explain why the FBI, in giving that information to the White House, provided it only to two members of the National Security Council staff charged with overseeing such matters.

The existence of an intelligence report on interest by China in influencing the 1996 elections in the United States was reported by The Washington Post last month. But the involvement of the National Security Agency, how the information was gathered and how it was handled by the FBI have not been previously known.

The law-enforcement officials who spoke on Wednesday, but only on the condition of anonymity, said the NSA, which trains eavesdropping equipment on overseas communications to collect highly sensitive intelligence, began the China collection effort early last year. But it was spring, the officials said, before intelligence analysts fully understood it.

The information was then passed, as is routine practice, to top counterintelligence officials at FBI headquarters and, in June, to the two officials at the National Security Council.

But for the most part it was tightly held. Not even the FBI's Washington field office, which maintains a squad of agents to monitor activity at the Chinese Embassy, was aware of it, the officials said.

The NSA report suggesting that the Chinese government was prepared to funnel money to American officeholders runs contrary to Beijing's repeated denials that it has ever tried to influence U.S. domestic politics, illegally or not.

But it was unclear from the law-enforcement officials' account on Wednesday whether any such money was to be funneled to candidates' campaign funds or some other destination, or whether the plotters envisioned that any officeholders would ever be told the true source of that money or instead would simply be lobbied by intermediaries loyal to Beijing.

Although a listing of the 30 lawmakers whom the FBI considered vulnerable could not be obtained on Wednesday, four have already identified themselves as among the six alerted by the bureau last June. They are Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, all Democrats.

The officials said the intelligence indicated that the Chinese were envious of the lobbying success in Washington of Taiwan, a major irritant to Beijing, and wanted to even the score.

As for the briefing of the two aides at the National Security Council, it led to a highly unusual public rift between the White House and the FBI on Monday, when President Clinton complained that he had not been told.

The FBI responded with an extraordinary statement publicly contradicting the president.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Reno tried to play down the friction between the White House and FBI. She told a Senate committee that it was a misunderstanding among the officials involved.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

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