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Did the NSA bust China’s coronavirus cover-up?

What does the National Security Agency know about China’s effort to conceal the crisis of its original coronavirus outbreak?

I’d suggest quite a bit.

The first point to note here is that China is now the NSA’s primary intelligence target. Driving Pacific region operations out of its Hawaii cryptological center, the NSA focuses on collecting the form and content of Chinese government communications. That priority targeting effort befits Xi Jinping’s campaign to displace the U.S.-led international order and China’s increasingly hostile stance to U.S. military operations in the Indo-Pacific.

But the first clue that the NSA has figured out quite a bit about the Chinese government’s actual response to the coronavirus, aside from the regime’s lies, comes from top Trump administration officials.

These officials are the NSA’s top consumers and are entitled to the most highly classified intelligence community reports. We already know that Chinese officials blew their December 2019 window to control the virus by refusing to allow access to Western medical officials, failing to instigate an effective quarantine, and deflecting responsibility during that period. But it wasn’t until late January that President Trump started regularly talking about the outbreak in relatively concerned terms. That shift suggests the issue had, by January, become a significant element of Trump’s daily intelligence report. It is likely that Trump was then warned that the risk of a global pandemic was growing.

So, how did the alarm get raised?

Well, NSA has ways of collecting and analyzing communications weeks or months after they were first sent. That capability includes scenarios in which what was said was originally ignored by the NSA. This would explain why Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weren’t more alarmed in early January.

It would also fit with how intelligence operations work that the January alarm was raised when the NSA began to ramp up its collection on China’s response efforts. These operations very likely intercepted phone calls or messages from Communist Party officials in Hubei saying stuff like, “Hey guys, this is spreading aggressively, and people are getting angry. We have a big problem.” When other Chinese officials, including Xi, were then simultaneously monitored telling other world powers, “No big deal, we have it under control,” the United States would have realized China was hiding the truth. That would have fed more intelligence resourcing into the collection effort.

So, what broke the back of China’s lies?

Well, it’s likely that top officials in Hubei rather than Beijing were the ones who unwittingly blew the cover-up.

Top Politburo Standing Committee officials in Beijing are hyperparanoid about their vulnerability to U.S. eavesdropping, preferring to meet in person at the Qinzheng Hall secretariat’s office in Beijing’s Kremlin-style Zhongnanhai complex. Also home to Xi’s chairman secretariat office, Qinzheng Hall is to China what the White House Situation Room is to the U.S. And like its U.S. counterpart, it is extensively swept for bugs or other collection devices every day. China knows, after all, that NSA’s Tailored Access Operations office is exceptionally ingenious at getting sound and signals out of places where they are supposed to remain hidden. Even then, attempting to guard against unknown American espionage capabilities it knows exist, Xi’s inner circle regularly uses human couriers to deliver important messages.

Unfortunately for Xi, the party’s provincial officials are less solicitous with operational security. The sheer size of the party’s bureaucracy means that someone in some position is eventually going to say something they are not supposed to say, on a cellphone or even an encrypted line. If it’s sent with signals, the NSA can get at the target in just about every case.

Now note that Xi fired the top party officials in Hubei province and Wuhan in early February, replacing them with a close, longtime ally and security specialist, Ying Yong. The timing here is striking. After all, why did Xi not fire them in January? The nature of Xi’s highly centralized party machine means that his general secretariat rules the roost in terms of major issues. That would have included the outbreak. In turn, we can presume that the officials were not fired early because they were doing what they were told to do: cover the virus up. If not, they would have been purged in January or even December. Public relations explains part of the rationale for the firing, but another possibility, given credence by the security specialist Ying’s arrival, is that Xi came to believe that the U.S. knew more than he had thought.

Hence the NSA angle. Just a thought!

Credit to: Tom Rogan

Source: the Washington Examiner, published on 2020-03-20

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