The Federal Bureau of Investigation has finally acknowledged the threat of Chinese espionage against U.S. centers of advanced science and technology. At least, that’s what senior bureau officials are telling the New York Times. The revelation comes as the bureau is trying to increase its budget on Capitol Hill and almost certainly represents an effort to repair the FBI’s tarnished image as the nation’s premier spy-catching agency. If true, however, the admission represents a dramatic turnabout from the bureau’s approach to Chinese espionage during the tenure of FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Bureau officials told the Times that China has stepped up its aggressive campaign to illegally acquire U.S. technologies. Consequently, the bureau says it is trying to recruit Chinese students at U.S. universities who may be working for Beijing. The bureau is concentrating its efforts on students in academic disciplines, like nuclear physics, that have military applications. “We’re not interested in kids taking history or English 101,” one agent told the Times.
The Bureau thinks that recruiting visiting Chinese students might help it better understand Beijing’s technology shopping list. FBI spokesmen told the Times that the bureau is paying for such information and that the program has been underway for about six months. It is particularly eager to get its hands on directives issued by Beijing that might reveal China’s intelligence priorities. Bureau spokesmen told the Times that the FBI wants to recruit Chinese students who may eventually return to the mainland.
The Chinese government dismissed the notion that it was collecting intelligence on U.S. technologies as “sheer fabrication and not worthy of comment.” The Times produced the usual assortment of “outside experts” who were quick to dismiss the FBI program as impractical or doomed to failure. One China scholar with the Rand Corporation claimed to be unaware of any increase in China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technologies. But at least he admitted that there might be some merit in trying to elicit intelligence from visiting Chinese students. This scholar must not be aware of the spate of recent indictments in California alleging illegal transfers of U.S. technologies to China, however.
One remarkable aspect of the Times’ article was the omission of the usual references to the dangers of “ethnic profiling.” Over the past several years, the Times and other national media outlets would not have published such a story without inserting the obligatory allegation that the government was ethnically or racially profiling these students. The Times itself became hyper-sensitive to such allegations after it was criticized for its coverage of the Wen Ho Lee spy case.
At the very end of the article, the Times did quote Henry Tang, who runs the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American activist group. Tang rarely misses a chance to rail about ethnic profiling. But this time, he told the Times that students should decide for themselves whether to cooperate with the FBI. He did express his worry that the bureau’s new policy “could unfairly cast aspersions on tens of thousands of Chinese students, and Chinese-Americans more generally.” But that was mild in comparison to past charges of racism hurled at anyone daring to bring up the topic of Chinese espionage.
Even more remarkable, however, was the willingness of the FBI to discuss such a program with a New York Times reporter. During the 1990s, FBI leaders systematically dismantled the bureau’s capability to counter Chinese espionage. The bureau “downsized” headquarters’ units targeted against the Chinese and forced dozens of experienced special agents into early retirement or alternative career fields. Special Agent Ray Wickman, the bureau’s most experienced China hand, retired rather than bow to demands from Justice Department officials during the Chinese campaign finance scandal for the names of his sources. He got no support from Louis Freeh. Freeh’s FBI shied away from espionage investigations of Energy Department scientists that would likely have led the bureau to Beijing’s front door. The FBI and the Justice Department opted for lesser charges against these scientists that shielded China from implication in a spy scandal.
Moreover, for the FBI to reveal details of its plans to target Chinese students, to recruit them to be U.S. spies in the event they return to the mainland, and to pay for their services would seem to be a security breach of the first magnitude. The clue came early in the article, however. The reporter said the bureau had started the program in an effort “to revitalize its battered reputation as a counterintelligence unit in the aftermath of terrorist attacks.” By definition, clandestine programs were not publicized. This is simply an effort by the FBI to refurbish its image.