Might Elon Musk be saved from the madness of his deal for Twitter Inc. by paranoia? Bloomberg News had a bombshell scoop Thursday night reporting that Biden administration officials, viewing Musk as a little too Russophilic, are weighing security reviews for his various ventures. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, could be an obvious target, as could that social media platform he is about to buy. But what about the big kahuna, Tesla Inc.?
It seems far-fetched that this could actually derail the Twitter deal and it's unclear which agency would even have the authority to conduct such a review, although the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is cited as an oblique vector. On the other hand, Twitter's stock is down 5% Friday morning. And these are paranoid times in the US. So if the Feds did squish the deal on national security grounds, it could raise the stakes for Musk's car company.
Because, as Musk never tires of explaining, Tesla isn't just a car company. By his telling, it is an energy, technology and artificial intelligence powerhouse all rolled into one. That is the logic-adjacent justification for Tesla's $650 billion market cap. Besides batteries, over-the-air software updates and the expanding suite of driver-assistance technologies, dubbed Autopilot and Full Self Driving, Tesla touts the development of a humanoid robot called Optimus. Indeed, should Tesla ever actually crack autonomous driving, its cars would essentially be a specialised type of robot.
Autonomous vehicles and AI go hand in hand and have long been of interest to strategic planners around the world. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, began work on unmanned ground vehicles in the 1980s. Apart from wheels with a mind of their own, AI touches an expanding range of applications, both military and civilian; everything from vacuum cleaners to drones. As vehicles become more connected and more intelligent, they not only become a source of national competitive strength but also a target for potentially hazardous hacking and mass surveillance. Remember how China banned Teslas from military installations last year?
If that all sounds a bit paranoid, welcome to the US, where paranoia is a resilient political virus: never dead, sometimes dormant, occasionally virulent. An agency like CFIUS, originally empowered to reject deals in the 1980s when Japan had Washington hyperventilating, is the very embodiment of paranoia. Two recent landmark pieces of legislation, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, are predicated to varying degrees on countering China. Plus, of course, there's that proxy war with the old adversary, Russia.
It still seems a stretch to think that Musk's apparent gamesmanship around Ukraine's access to the Starlink satellite-internet service and his palling around with Kremlin officials on Twitter — however morally repugnant — would lead to his deal being blocked.
Again, it is unclear to me who would even conduct these reviews. But the question, as so often, is why does Musk court such needless risk in the first place? His previous tussles with the Securities and Exchange Commission and various state and federal traffic safety agencies have been entirely self-generated.
Of all the arms of government to tweak, the national security complex is probably the riskiest. While the never-ending game of eight-dimensional chess that plays out on Twitter throws up the possibility that Musk is hoping the cavalry will ride to his rescue on Twitter, cavalries tend to ride roughshod over much else. Regardless of whether that happens here, Musk's prominence and fortune are bound up in the promise of him developing and owning technologies that will define 21st century life — and geopolitical rivalry. He is a person of interest to security hawks by default. His Twitter habit, be it financial or just the expression of his incontinent thumbs, provides them with gratuitous openings.
Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement