Frustration grows with Obama over response to China hacks

Frustration grows with Obama over response to China hacks
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Republicans are frustrated with President Obama for delaying hacking sanctions on China and threatening to force his hand.

Committee leaders from both the House and Senate this week criticized the White House decision to table any penalties until after Chinese President Xi's upcoming state visit.

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush even went after Obama for the delay in Wednesday's prime-time debate.

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Critics say the administration looks weak in negotiations with Beijing, and that diplomacy is doing nothing to stop the flood of Chinese cyberattacks drowning U.S. businesses and government agencies.

“We have to do something,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told The Hill. “We can’t have no response. And this administration has absolutely failed to put any sort of consequence on their actions.”

Several weeks ago, the White House was reportedly considering penalties that would freeze the U.S. assets of sanctioned companies and individuals and also ban them from making U.S. deals.

But after a series of clandestine meetings between the two countries, the Obama administration decided to wait until after the state visit.

The move dismayed many in the GOP.

“I understand about quiet diplomacy, but this has been going on for far too long and I think the Chinese government has been far too complicit in this,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told reporters.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, and Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) on Friday even introduced a resolution admonishing the president for holding off on sanctions.

On the campaign trail, the delay is feeding into the right's narrative that Obama can't stand up to China.

It's a major talking point for candidates, including GOP front-runner Donald Trump who claims he "beat the people from China."

“I win against China,” Trump said at a recent rally in South Carolina. “You can win against China if you're smart, but our people don't have a clue.”

Jeb Bush directly went after Obama over the looming sanctions during Wednesday’s debate, insisting, “We need to be strong against China.”

“We should use offensive tactics as it relates to cybersecurity, send a deterrent signal to China,” he said. “There should be super sanctions in what President Obama has proposed.”

China has long been a thorny issue for Obama.

Politically, China is playing a growing role in international negotiations, such as the recent Iranian nuclear deal. Economically, the Asian power’s massive market – second only to the U.S. in gross domestic product and more than double the next-largest economy, Japan — is vital to the U.S. private sector.

“It’s an important relationship that matters not just in the Pacific region but around the world as China’s economy continues to grow and China’s influence continues to expand,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a Thursday briefing.

But Beijing has irked the White House with its territorial expansions in the South China Sea, recent currency devaluation, questionable human rights record and aggressive crackdown on the flow of digital information within its borders.

The country has also frustrated foreign businesses with targeted regulations and fines that many criticize as thinly-veiled protectionism. Beijing officials are even pressing major American firms to sign a pledge that could give the government access to user data and source codes.

Looming over all these issues is the rising tide of cyberattacks crashing on both the government and private sector.

President Obama recently publicly accused Beijing of encouraging a widespread campaign of “industrial espionage,” which American companies say is eroding their global competitive edge.

“We are prepared to take some countervailing actions to get their attention,” Obama vowed.

Privately, administration officials have also blamed China for the catastrophic hacks at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which exposed over 22 million people’s personal data, including the government’s exhaustive security clearance background check forms. It’s believed to be the largest-ever government data breach.

The controversy threatens to overshadow next week’s visit from President Xi.

But Capitol Hill Democrats — even those that support eventual sanctions — are standing by the administration’s timing.

“I had the urge that they not put sanctions in place concurrent with President Xi’s visit,” Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, told The Hill. “I thought that would just be so in your face as to be counter-productive. Not only on the cyber issue, but on a raft of other issues.”

The visit might even be a dividing line for the administration, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill.

“I think perhaps what transpires from this visit will determine whether or not some of those sanctions can be put into place,” he said.

Once Xi leaves Washington, though, pressure will grow in both parties for Obama to slap China with sanctions.

“Following his visit, the administration should move forward with sanctions on companies that have stolen intellectual property,” Schiff said. “We need to have a series of escalating steps to deter Chinese behavior, otherwise they’ll continue their rampant theft of R&D.”

Sen. Johnson earlier this week said he is considering “a piece of legislation that specifically details what type of sanctions, just so it’s out on the table, so the Chinese government realizes that we are serious about this.”

Cyber leaders on both the left and right told The Hill they would be open to such a legislative proposal.

“There’s merit to look at that,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus.

The measure, Johnson maintained, would help Obama negotiate with the Chinese, something many on the right say the president can't do effectively.

“If the Chinese realize that the Congress is going to start enacting legislation to impose sanctions if they don’t change their behavior, that would strengthen [Obama’s] hand in negotiations,” Johnson said.