Ken Dilanian is a reporter who has been covering national security and intelligence for years, first for print publications like the AP and the Los Angeles Times, and most recently as an NBC News correspondent.
Here is his most recent appearance on TV, from Sunday:
First off… wha. What? The thing that grabs you is the word “sniper,” because it is a cool military thing that everyone has some familiarity with. Snipers! They can shoot you from a long way away and you’d never know it! There might be one watching you right now! But let’s unpack this a little bit more.
Dilanian got an absurdist MNSBC spot to explain one of his latest reports, which is based almost entirely on an assertion that Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe made in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. So essentially what we’re looking at here is an aggregation of a single detail from an op-ed published in one of the most Trump-friendly opinion sections in the mainstream media by Trump’s hand-picked director of national intelligence who used to be a Republican member of Congress from Texas. That detail jumped to MSNBC and was compared to Gattaca by anchor Yasmin Vossoughian, who joked that she was going to be “taken out immediately.”
Here’s what Ratcliffe actually claimed, per the op-ed, which is mostly about the Chinese government stealing American tech (something they have been doing for years, along with literally everyone else):
China also steals sensitive U.S. defense technology to fuel President Xi Jinping’s aggressive plan to make China the world’s foremost military power. U.S. intelligence shows that China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities. There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power.
It is literally one line in the piece, which is an extremely tired refrain about China stealing U.S. technology, something that everyone knows about and honestly is way less of a big deal than the national security establishment makes it out to be. But sure, let’s go into it. As veteran China correspondent James Palmer points out, there are a couple possible implications of this claim (which, again, is being made by one guy with every incentive to drum up fear about China).
China doing human trials on CRISPR gene editing for state purposes would be pretty fucked up! It’s also not something that would create a supersoldier anytime soon, and if it did, there’s absolutely no way the U.S. wouldn’t also be pursuing the same program. This is not to defend the Chinese government, which clearly does not abide by any sort of ethical scruples, but just noting that neither… does… the U.S. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has multiple public projects exploring various ways that gene editing could affect soldiers’ performance on the battlefield, particularly in relation to their response to chemical weapons. This is all stuff that basically everyone is doing and it does not mean you’re going to get domed by a Chinese sniper with fucking spider-eyes walking out of a TGI Fridays anytime soon.
You wouldn’t think that from reading Dilanian’s report, however. After citing Ratcliffe’s op-ed, he then focuses on a paper written in 2019 that suggested that China could be exploring battlefield applications for CRISPR. The paper’s authors are a former Navy officer and a scholar who works at the Center for a New American Security, a small DC think tank that is funded by, I shit you not, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Airbus Group, the Boeing Company, Chevron Corporation, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Raytheon Company, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, the United States government, BAE Systems, BP America and Exxon Mobil Corporation. And even with that! The paper itself just says “yeah, China is good at CRISPR stuff, it’s possible they’re looking into military uses of it.” Which, so is the United States!
Dilanian also included this absolute gem of a “request for comment” graf:
His office and the CIA did not immediately respond to requests to elaborate on the notion that China sought to create “super soldiers” of the sort depicted in Hollywood films like “Captain America,” “Bloodshot” and “Universal Soldier.”
It’s curious that Dilanian didn’t hear back from the CIA, because throughout his career he’s gotten extremely good at asking them about stuff. So good, in fact, that he even spent years literally showing their press officers his story drafts while working for the Los Angeles Times, as the Intercept reported in 2014. Here’s a little surreal snippet from that piece, emphasis mine.
Email exchanges between CIA public affairs officers and Ken Dilanian, now an Associated Press intelligence reporter who previously covered the CIA for the Times, show that Dilanian enjoyed a closely collaborative relationship with the agency, explicitly promising positive news coverage and sometimes sending the press office entire story drafts for review prior to publication. In at least one instance, the CIA’s reaction appears to have led to significant changes in the story that was eventually published in the Times.
“I’m working on a story about congressional oversight of drone strikes that can present a good opportunity for you guys,” Dilanian wrote in one email to a CIA press officer, explaining that what he intended to report would be “reassuring to the public” about CIA drone strikes. In another, after a series of back-and-forth emails about a pending story on CIA operations in Yemen, he sent a full draft of an unpublished report along with the subject line, “does this look better?” In another, he directly asks the flack: “You wouldn’t put out disinformation on this, would you?”
Reassuring the public about drone strikes!!! Holy shit! If you want to talk about “ethical boundaries,” this guy has basically been working as an extra PR guy for the U.S. intelligence community for a decade. It’s a fucking travesty that he still has a job as a journalist.
But this is how things work. Dilanian still has a job as a journalist because he does this shit. What makes him valuable to NBC is exactly what you’re seeing here. He is undoubtedly well-sourced at this point, which allows him to provide unique insight on big, splashy stories like the “microwave weapon” that CIA spooks and various State Department types have said keeps giving them headaches in Cuba. He has unscrupulous enough ethics that he’s willing to go on TV and banter about Chinese supersoldiers, without hedging or qualifying his response with the fact that the U.S. is doing the same thing, all based on extremely thin evidence. He’s willing to do this, and MSNBC is willing to have a moronic anchor interview him about this, because it furthers a culture of xenophobic fear that empowers the U.S. military-industrial complex. If Americans are freaked out about Chinese supersoldiers, they’re going to be more likely to vote for politicians who say they’ll devote money to stopping the Chinese supersoldiers. I’m not here to pretend that the Chinese government is some kind of friendly superpower that just wants to make the world a better place. China is motivated by the exact same forces of global capital and power that the U.S. is. But painting them as the enemy that will send vampire commandos who can survive on three hours of sleep a night (aka college students, or normal soldiers in combat situations) only fuels the existential tensions that allow Lockheed and Raytheon and Boeing to continue making billions by selling their wares to lawmakers elected out of a culture of fear and perpetual war.
It also makes for great TV, which is why Disney has an entire franchise about superpeople blowing shit up. It’s just a pity they get so many crossovers on everyday cable news.