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‘High alert’: After suing China over coronavirus, Missouri braced for retaliation, records show

‘High alert’: After suing China over coronavirus, Missouri braced for retaliation, records show

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State Treasurer Eric Schmitt to become Missouri AG after Hawley elected to Senate

State Treasurer Eric Schmitt addresses the press on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, after Gov. Mike Parson announced Schmitt will become Missouri attorney general when current Attorney General Josh Hawley resigns to become a U.S. senator. The press conference was held in the governor's office in Jefferson City. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials in late April warned of possible retaliation by the Chinese government after Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the country for its response to the new coronavirus pandemic.

Members of Gov. Mike Parson’s administration, in the days after the lawsuit was filed, expressed concern about cyberattacks and disruptions in shipments of personal protective equipment, or PPE, from China, according to emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch through an open records request.

The emails are further evidence that officials in the Parson administration were caught off-guard by the headline-grabbing lawsuit, which the Chinese government has called “very absurd.”

Asked about the lawsuit on the day it was filed, Parson told reporters “I’m not sure what that’s all about.” Parson, a Republican, appointed Schmitt as attorney general in late 2018 after Josh Hawley was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Missouri has long courted China as a trading partner, with the state operating a trade office in Shanghai and two former governors visiting the country in recent years. Chinese-owned firms, such as Smithfield Foods, are major employers in the state; 21 Missouri-based companies, including World Wide Technology, Maritz Holdings and Peabody Energy, operate in China.

“As with any lawsuit we file, we did extensive research on many different avenues and issues related to the suit before filing — we felt compelled to take action to hold the Chinese government accountable for their actions, and we stand by the suit,” said Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

“We’re proud that Missouri is leading the charge to hold China accountable for their misdeeds that have cost lives, jobs and unprecedented economic downturn,” he said.

On April 22, the day after the attorney general’s office sued, Rob Dixon, director of the Department of Economic Development, sent an email to Aaron Willard, Parson’s chief of staff, and Drew Erdmann, the state chief operating officer. Sandra Karsten, director of the Department of Public Safety, was copied on the email.

“We are expecting some degree of retaliation against Missouri as a response to the Attorney General’s lawsuit against the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party, and other Chinese officials and institutions,” Dixon said. “Of most immediate concern: the potential to disrupt PPE shipments and cyberattacks.”

Hours earlier, Ann Pardalos, community and economic development manager in the Department of Economic Development, sent a memo to Dixon outlining potential Chinese threats.

Among possible retaliatory measures, Pardalos said China could:

• Halt all Chinese exports to Missouri. “As you are well aware, a number of health care providers, labs, etc. are currently importing critical supplies of PPE from China.”

• Turn away Missouri exports.

• Restrict or confiscate the business license and registration from the state’s China office.

• Rescind all travel authorizations and visas for Missouri citizens and business executives.

• Pull all Chinese students from Missouri.

• Hack Missouri state government websites and other critical IT infrastructure.

On April 23, Stephen Meyer, a special assistant in the Office of Administration, wrote a memo saying the IT director in the attorney general’s office informed the state’s deputy cyber information security officer of the lawsuit after the attorney general filed it.

“On Tuesday April 21, at approximately 11:30 AM, Tricia Heislen (IT Director for the AGO’s office) reached out to Theresa Frommel (Deputy CISO, Office of Cyber Security) to inform her that the Attorney General just filed a lawsuit against the Chinese Government over their handling of the Coronavirus,” Meyer said in the memo to three administration officials, including Sarah Steelman, Office of Administration commissioner, and Erdmann.

Meyer went on to describe “steps taken to prepare” for potential retaliation; those steps were apparently redacted from records provided to the Post-Dispatch.

“Our OCS (Office of Cyber Security) team consistently operates as if a target is on our back, so when one really gets put there, I have full confidence that we will be diligent in our protection and response,” Meyer said.

He said that ever since protests in Ferguson in 2014, the state had elevated its cyber security protocol.

“We have mitigations already in place to combat this potential threat,” Meyer said.

That same day, Jeff Wann, chief information officer in the Office of Administration, sent an email with the subject line “Potential Chinese Retaliation” to Erdmann and Steelman.

“Drew, I let Sarah know a couple of days ago about this issue and we have been on high alert for the last two days plus today,” Wann said. “We went on high alert within a very short time of the AG’s announcement.”

Despite the state’s heightened concern, no retaliatory acts appear to have taken place.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Office of Administration told the Post-Dispatch “there has not been a noticeable uptick in cyberattacks at this time.”

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