FBI China American Universities

This Oct. 4, 2019 photo shows a copy of an FBI pamphlet and related emails. The FBI’s outreach to American colleges and universities about the threat of economic espionage includes this pamphlet that warns specifically about efforts by China to steal academic research. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. warned allies around the world that Chinese tech giant Huawei was a security threat, the FBI was making the same point quietly to a Midwestern university.

In an email to the associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, an agent wanted to know if administrators believed Huawei had stolen any intellectual property from the school.

Told no, the agent responded: “I assumed those would be your answers, but I had to ask.”

It was no random query.

The FBI has been reaching out to colleges and universities across the country as it tries to stem what American authorities portray as the wholesale theft of technology and trade secrets by researchers tapped by China. The breadth and intensity of the campaign emerges in emails The Associated Press obtained through records requests to public universities in 50 states. The emails underscore the extent of U.S. concerns that universities, as recruiters of foreign talent and incubators of cutting-edge research, are particularly vulnerable targets.

Agents have lectured at seminars, briefed administrators in campus meetings and distributed pamphlets with cautionary tales of trade secret theft. In the past two years, they’ve requested the emails of two University of Washington researchers, asked Oklahoma State University if it has scientists in specific areas and sought updates about “possible misuse” of research funds by a University of Colorado Boulder professor, the messages show.

The emails show administrators mostly embracing FBI warnings, requesting briefings for themselves and others. But they also reveal some struggling to balance legitimate national security concerns against their own eagerness to avoid stifling research or tarnishing legitimate scientists. The Justice Department says it appreciates that push-pull and wants only to help universities separate the relatively few researchers engaged in theft from the majority who are not.

Senior FBI officials told AP they’re not encouraging schools to monitor researchers by nationality but instead to take steps to protect research and to watch for suspicious behavior. They consider the briefings vital because they say universities, accustomed to fostering international and collaborative environments, haven’t historically been as attentive to security as they should be.

“When we go to the universities, what we’re trying to do is highlight the risk to them without discouraging them from welcoming the researchers and students from a country like China,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in an interview.

The effort comes amid a deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China and as a trade war launched by President Donald Trump contributes to stock market turbulence and fears of a global economic slowdown. American officials have long accused China of stealing trade secrets from U.S. corporations to develop their economy, allegations Beijing denies.

“Existentially, we look at China as our greatest threat from an intelligence perspective, and they succeeded significantly in the last decade from stealing our best and brightest technology,” said William Evanina, the U.S. government’s chief counterintelligence official.

The FBI’s effort coincides with restrictions put in place by other federal agencies, including the Pentagon and Energy Department, that fund university research grants. The National Institutes of Health has sent dozens of letters in the past year warning schools of researchers it believes may have concealed grants received from China, or improperly shared confidential research information. The Justice Department launched last year an effort called the China Initiative aimed at identifying priority trade secret cases and focusing resources on them.

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