Democrat-linked PR firm lobbying China bill for drone company blacklisted over alleged human rights abuses

Ailan Evans, DCNF

  • A public relations firm run by former Democratic operatives and tied to foreign influence campaigns is lobbying national security legislation on behalf of a Chinese drone manufacturer blacklisted for alleged human rights abuses.
  • DJI, a drone maker based out of Shenzhen, China, has paid CLS Strategies $190,000 in 2021 to lobby on drone legislation including the American Security Drone Act, according to lobbying disclosure forms.
  • The U.S. Commerce Department placed DJI on its Entity List in December 2020, restricting U.S. companies exporting technology to DJI, and alleged the drone manufacturer to have “enabled wide-scale human rights abuses within China” through “high-technology surveillance.”
  • CLS Strategies, staffed by several former Democratic operatives including Robert Chlopak and Mark Feierstein, was found by Facebook to have engaged in a coordinated political influence campaign in several South American countries, including Bolivia and Venezuela, according to Facebook’s August 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report.

A public relations firm run by former Democratic operatives and tied to foreign influence campaigns is working on behalf of a Chinese drone manufacturer blacklisted for alleged human rights abuses to lobby a provision contained in Congress’ bipartisan legislative package targeting China.

DJI, a drone maker based out of Shenzhen, China, has paid CLS Strategies $190,000 in 2021 to lobby on drone legislation including the American Security Drone Act, according to lobbying disclosure forms. The act was reintroduced by Republican Sen. Rick Scott in January and prevents the federal government from procuring drones manufactured or assembled in China, with certain exceptions.

The American Security Drone Act is now part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a sweeping legislative package which passed the Senate in June aiming to boost U.S. innovation and technological competitiveness with China. The bill mainly includes investments for U.S. technological research and development, as well as several national security measures including the drone provision and a ban of TikTok on government hardware, and is expected to receive a House vote in the coming months.

CLS Strategies’ lobbyist for DJI on the American Security Drone Act is Andrew Koneschusky, who previously worked as national press secretary to Sen. Chuck Schumer. Schumer introduced, and has been the driving force behind, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of which the American Security Drone Act is now a part; it’s unclear which lawmakers Koneschusky lobbied on the drone bill.

DJI is also employing lobbying shop Cassidy and Associates to lobby on “legislation related to unmanned aerial systems,” though it’s unclear exactly which bill, or whether the legislation is related to national security matters. Cassidy and Associates bills itself as a “bipartisan” government affairs firm with staff including “both Republicans and Democrats.”

Cassidy and Associates did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Commerce Department placed DJI on its Entity List in December 2020, restricting U.S. companies exporting technology to DJI, and alleged the drone manufacturer to have “enabled wide-scale human rights abuses within China” through “high-technology surveillance.”

Bloomberg reported in March 2020 that DJI had struck a 2017 deal with police in the Xinjiang province of China, where Uyghur Muslims are currently forced into labor and internment camps by the Chinese government.

The company has also been associated with data privacy and national security issues; cybersecurity firm River Loop Security issued a report claiming that an app used to control one of DJI’s devices was sending data back to servers on mainland China, which the firm alleged could be accessed by Chinese authorities per the third-party servers’ terms of service. The Department of Defense has said that DJI’s drone systems “pose potential threats to national security,” while the Department of Homeland Security has said it believes DJI could be “providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”

To lobby on the American Security Drone Act, DJI enlisted CLS Strategies, a firm with links to the Democratic Party.

CLS Strategies’ founding partner is Robert Chlopak, who was the former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to CLS’ website. Chlopak is also a longtime Democratic donor, according to Federal Elections Commission (FEC) records.

Similarly, Mark Feierstein, listed as a senior adviser to CLS on the group’s website, worked in the Clinton administration as a senior adviser and speechwriter to the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States. Feierstein also spent six years in the Obama administration, with part of his tenure devoted to issues in Latin America.

CLS was found by Facebook to have engaged in a coordinated political influence campaign in several South American countries, including Bolivia and Venezuela, according to Facebook’s August 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report.

“We removed 55 Facebook accounts, 42 Pages and 36 Instagram accounts linked to US-based strategic communications firm CLS Strategies,” Facebook said in the report, including examples such as a political advertisement opposing Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro. The social media company said CLS spent roughly $3.6 million on Facebook ads as part of the campaign.

CLS did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

DJI has itself lobbied on drone legislation, specifically the American Security Drone Act and the UAS Act, as well as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.

When reached for comment, DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg dismissed any data and security concerns as unfounded, pointing to several independent reviews of the company’s products.

“We are aware of critics and competitors who have claimed otherwise, and simply put, their claims are false. They have provided no evidence to support their accusations,” Lisberg said. “When our products are evaluated on a factual and technical basis, not headlines or innuendo, their utility and security remains unmatched.”

DJI declined to comment on any specific legislation.

The American Security Drone Act echoes concerns raised by several Republican lawmakers over the potential national security risks posed by DJI. Reps. Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz launched an inquiry into state and local government’s use of DJI products in May 2020.

The U.S. Secret Service and the FBI have purchased DJI drones since the company was added to the Entity List, according to procurement records first reported by Axios.

Following the Commerce Department’s decision to place DJI on its Entity List over alleged human rights abuses, two of DJI’s lobbying firms — Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP and K&L Gates LLP — terminated contracts with the company.

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