FBI Director: ‘Chinese students a counterintelligence risk to national security’

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese students in the United States may be covertly spying for the Chinese government.

During questioning, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked Wray about “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in science and mathematics.”

“The use of non-traditional 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,” he said. “It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well, it’s across basically every discipline. And I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues.”

Wray also noted that the FBI is currently investigating some Chinese government-backed groups that facilitate dialogues between Chinese and American academics. He named one of them.

“We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes,” Wray said. “We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we’re watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigations into them.”

In response to a question from Rubio about a large Chinese enrollment in STEM programs, Wray said, “They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of this. One of the things we’re trying to do is to view the Chinese 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. It’s not just the Intelligence Community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of defense.”

Wray is not the first FBI official to warn of Chinese espionage. Edward You, an agent in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, told members of Congress then that the bureau has concerns about Chinese government-backed efforts to gather massive amounts of data on Americans’ health. [source]

Analysis: As you might expect, Wray’s claims were widely politicized, with the U.S. media outlet reporting the story ensuring it contacted several ‘Asian-American advocacy’ groups for critical comments. 

But Wray’s dispassionate observations reflect legitimate concerns within the U.S. intelligence community about China’s ongoing counterintelligence campaign to steal U.S. technology and secrets, which began in earnest in the 1990s during the Clinton administration. His observations are based on actual intelligence collection, not opinions tainted by negative ethnic characterizations and racist connotations. In terms of academic spies, both China and the U.S. have claimed successes — and failures [source]

The politicization of Wray’s assessment is exactly why many of these congressional intelligence briefings take place behind closed doors, away from reporters and media cameras — so the intelligence professionals can give lawmakers the unfiltered truth about our enemies so they can make informed legislative decisions regarding the nation’s national security and defense needs.

As for China, politicization aside, the country is our greatest challenge for the foreseeable future, and there is no spinning that.  

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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