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Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Twelve former top U.S. national security officials are urging Congress to hit pause on a package of antitrust bills in order to consider how breaking up tech companies could harm the U.S. in its competition with China, according to a letter obtained by Axios.

The big picture: Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are among those arguing that imposing severe restrictions solely on U.S. giants will pave the way for a tech landscape dominated by China — echoing a position voiced by the Big Tech companies themselves.

What they're saying: In its quest to "undermine U.S. influence" and become "the world's leading innovator," the Chinese government employs policies designed to "create and support 'national champion' technology companies," the former officials wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

  • Antitrust legislation to break up U.S. tech giants — without targeting Chinese companies like Huawei, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba — could impede innovation that is "critical to maintaining America’s technological edge," they argue.
  • The former officials praise the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act — a sweeping, $200 billion China-focused package overwhelmingly passed by the Senate in June — but call on Congress to study the national security implications of the House antitrust proposals before moving forward.
  • Since leaving public service, several of the letter's signatories have joined the boards of organizations that receive funding or do work for tech firms like Google and Amazon.

The other side: "These arguments are the same arguments that Facebook and Google have been making for a very long time in an effort to avoid regulation," Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chair of House Judiciary's Antitrust Subcommittee, told Axios. "And I think actually that the evidence is just the opposite."

  • Cicilline — who is seeking a House vote on the bills this fall — argues that competition drives innovation, and that the lack of competition in the digital marketplace has led to a "very dangerous" decline in innovation that poses its own national security threat.
  • A spokesperson for Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), the subcommittee's top Republican, told Axios: "Let’s be clear: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are hurting U.S. competition by engaging in anti-competitive practices. Our bills will create competition."

Between the lines: The letter does not acknowledge China's own Big Tech crackdown, which has accelerated in recent months.

  • The Financial Times reported this week, for example, that Chinese regulators are seeking to break up payments app Alipay — Beijing's latest salvo against Jack Ma's Ant Group, whose record-setting IPO was scuttled by Xi Jinping last year.

The letter was signed by:

  • Robert Cardillo, former National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director
  • Dan Coats, former director of national intelligence
  • Adm. James Foggo III, former U.S. Navy commander Europe-Africa
  • Sue Gordon, former principal deputy director of national intelligence
  • Rick Ledgett Jr., former NSA deputy director
  • Michael Morell, former acting CIA director
  • John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence and deputy secretary of state
  • Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director
  • Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, former director of naval intelligence and commander of the Tenth Fleet
  • Frances Townsend, former White House homeland security adviser
  • Dr. Michael Vickers, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence
  • Adm. James "Sandy" Winnefeld Jr., former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman

Full text of letter.

Go deeper

Updated Sep 17, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Pentagon approves request for 100 National Guard troops for "Justice for J6" rally

Security fencing has been reinstalled around the Capitol. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a request from Capitol Police to provide 100 D.C. National Guard troops in case law enforcement requires additional support at Saturday's "Justice for J6" rally at the Capitol.

Why it matters: Security preparations have ramped up ahead of the pro-Trump demonstration, where hundreds of protesters sympathetic to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack are expected to gather.

Sep 17, 2021 - World

Apple, Google delete Navalny app as Russians go to polls

Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting app is seen on a phone in Moscow. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

Apple and Google have deleted jailed Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny's tactical voting app from their app stores, per Reuters.

Why it matters: The tech companies removed the opposition-led Smart Voting app on the same day Russians head to the polls to elect a new parliament amid the largest crackdown of Kremlin critics in years.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
Sep 17, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The line between business and politics has vanished

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

"Stop writing about politics. I signed up for a business newsletter." I get that message, sometimes a lot of them, when this space's eyes wander toward Washington, D.C.

Why it matters: Years ago, it might have been a valid critique. Today, though, the line between business and politics has all but vanished.

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