The warning last week from a dozen former national security leaders was stark: An antitrust crackdown on Silicon Valley could threaten the nation’s economy and “cede U.S. tech leadership to China.”
But the group was united by more than their histories of holding senior defense and intelligence roles in the Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations: All 12 have ties to major tech companies, either from working with them directly or serving with organizations that get money from them, according to a POLITICO analysis.
Seven of the former officials, including former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, are advisory board members or senior counselors with a public relations firm that represents Google.
Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was instrumental in putting together the Sept. 15 warning, is a senior adviser with the law firm King & Spalding, which represents Google before the House Judiciary Committee in the panel’s antitrust investigation into the tech giants. King & Spalding wrote a white paper released last week by Google’s major trade group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, making similar arguments that the antitrust bills could harm national security.
Those tech ties were not immediately apparent when the dozen former officials sent their letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, urging lawmakers to pause action on a bipartisan package of antitrust bills aimed at Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. But their revelation could deepen skepticism in Congress about the beware-of-China message.
“It is not surprising that individuals who receive money from Big Tech are defending Big Tech,” said Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, the antitrust panel’s top Republican, in a statement to POLITICO. “At the end of the day, Big Tech is harming U.S. competition and innovation through anticompetitive practices.”
None of the former officials who signed onto the letter responded to requests for comment. Axios first reported on the letter’s existence last week, while noting that “several” of the signers had tech industry ties.
The former officials’ allies say their argument remains valid.
“It shouldn't be surprising that national security officials would have concerns about legislation that would hamstring U.S. tech companies while not applying to their foreign competitors,” said Heather Greenfield, a CCIA spokesperson. She said the tech trade group had not participated in drafting or disseminating the letter to Pelosi or McCarthy.
Tech trade groups have promoted the anti-China message for years as they have sought to avoid antitrust action. Similarly embattled industries have also argued that regulations from Washington could harm U.S. competitiveness — whether it was the financial industry pointing to Japan while pressing for deregulation in the 1990s, or Qualcomm arguing during the Trump era that the U.S. was ceding the future of 5G to China by pursuing a case against the company.
This time, the warnings are falling flat among the critics of the big tech companies.
“It’s a really smart way to go after Republicans, to go after the national security angle,” said Jon Schweppe, the director of policy and government affairs at the right-wing American Principles Project, which supports the antitrust crackdown. “But the thing we’ve found, and we see it with this letter … is that whenever people are making these arguments, they are funded by big tech and these are arguments coming directly from strategy meetings being held between Google, Facebook, Apple and all their public policy teams.”
“It’s hard to lend that any sort of credibility once you know that’s the case,” Schweppe said.
Among the letter-signers’ tech ties:
— Seven of the 12, including Panetta, hold roles at Beacon Global Strategies, a public relations firm that according to a person familiar with the matter counts Google as a client. (The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the firm does not publicize its clientele.)
Google and Beacon Global Strategies did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Five of the former officials, including former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo and former National Security Agency deputy director Richard Ledgett, serve as advisory board members at Beacon. Panetta and Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director under President Barack Obama, are senior counselors for the firm.
— Cardillo, the former NGA director, earlier this year became chair of the board of the Earth imaging company Planet Federal. Planet Federal is a division of Planet Labs, a company in which Google has a significant equity stake.
— All the signatories have connections to organizations that either receive money from the tech giants or defense companies that partner closely with Amazon and Google — a sign of just how ubiquitous big tech funding has become in Washington’s policy world.
Sue Gordon, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence, is an advisory board member of the Antonin Scalia Law School’s National Security Institute, which counts Amazon as a major funder. James Foggo III, a retired Navy admiral, is a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, which Google lists as one of the organizations it funds.
Frances Townsend, who was a counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, is on the national security advisory board for American Edge, a Facebook-funded group that opposes changes to strengthen antitrust laws.
Townsend is also on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, which counts Facebook and Google as funders; the board of trustees for Center for Strategic and International Studies, which counts Apple and Google as funders; and the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, which receives money from Microsoft and counts Facebook and Google in its highest membership category.
Whatever other impact letter has, it appears to have inspired at least one other former national security official to speak out on behalf of stronger antitrust laws — Wes Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate who was NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, last week tweeted, “We cannot let anxiety around competitiveness with China become an excuse to look the other way on anticompetitive behavior by large U.S. technology firms.”
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