What the FBI Director told me universities should do to protect against intelligence threats from China

At the Aspen Security Forum this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray characterized China “from a counterintelligence perspective” as representing “in many ways” the “broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country.”  This led me to ask him about his concerns regarding academia.

A little background: Last February Director Wray testified before Congress about the risk to higher education from China’s intelligence-gathering efforts.  As Elizabeth Redden wrote on Inside HigherEd, Wray was asked by Senator Marco Rubio to comment on “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in the sciences and mathematics.”

Redden reported that Wray responded:

“I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline.”  (Emphasis added.) 

“And I think the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it. So one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. So it’s not just the intelligence community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defense.” (Emphasis added.) 

Yesterday – July 19 –  at Aspen on Wray warned:

“I think China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country. I say that because, for them, it is a whole of state effort. It is economic espionage as well as traditional espionage, it is non-traditional collectors as well as traditional intelligence operatives. It’s human sources as well as cyber means. We have economic espionage investigations in every state, all 50 states, that trace back to China. It covers everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts and everything in between. The volume of it, the pervasiveness of it, the significance of it is something that I think this country cannot underestimate.”

In addition, when asked to contrast the Chinese threat from the Russian, Wray said:

“It’s a different kind of threat. Obviously, the Russian threat is a significant one that I think we need to deal with very aggressively indeed, but I think the China threat … China is trying to position itself as the sole dominant superpower, the sole dominant economic power. They’re trying to replace the United States in that role. Theirs is a long-term game that is focused on, as I said, just about every industry, every corner of society in many ways. It involves academia, it involves research and development, it involves everything from agriculture to high tech. Theirs is a, as I said, a more pervasive, a broader approach, but, in many ways, more of a long-term threat to the country.”

Given that he renewed his concerns about academia, I posed a question to Director Wray:

Charlie Dunlap: Thank you very much for coming to the conference and speaking so candidly. Charlie Dunlap from Duke University. You mentioned academia as being one of the areas that’s under threat by the Chinese. Some universities have campuses, including Duke, in China. What should the universities be doing to protect against this threat? Do you have any suggestions or ideas? 

Christopher Wray: Well, the first thing I would say is, while it’s a multidisciplinary concern, the biggest focus is, of course, more on the graduate level as opposed to the undergraduate level. And it’s obviously much more focused on STEM issues and so forth, but I think trying to … Communicating with the local FBI office, I think, is important because we have found, in a way that I find very encouraging and a bright spot, frankly, in the country, that over the last few years as we have started to engage more with universities in an awareness raising way, the response, while initially a little guarded and concerned… 

[There] was a time not that long ago where the FBI wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms on college campuses, but it’s actually been very gratifying, and to me, that says something very optimistic about this countrythat once people get the facts, we’re not telling them what to do. We have to be more creative about how we can share information sometimes which is sensitive. But I’ve been, like I said, very encouraged in a lot of different universities around the country at the way people have responded and pushed back on certain research development exchanges and so forth 

And it’s a challenge, right? We have an open, collaborative research environment which is one of the strengths of this country, but people need to do it with their eyes open and really think carefully about what they’re getting into.

Is Duke doing this?  I don’t know, but my view was expressed last year in a Lawfire® post entitled “Do Duke’s principles and values call for a rethinking of its involvement with China?” and I invite you to take a look.  We should welcome students on the China campus to study liberal arts disciplines and some sciences, but caution needs to be used when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that could directly contribute to weapons or technologies that will enhance “dystopian tools of China’s burgeoning surveillance-industrial complex.”

Interestingly, Redden also reports “a National Security Strategy document released by the White House in December said the government would “consider restrictions on foreign STEM students from designated countries to ensure that intellectual property is not transferred to our competitors, while acknowledging the importance of recruiting the most advanced technical work force to the United States.”

As we like to say on Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the law, and decide for yourself!

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