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GOP senators want answers on DOJ decision to kill program to catch Chinese spies

DOJ bowed to activist pressure led by two prestigious schools with extensive China ties.

Published: March 25, 2022 4:55pm

Updated: March 27, 2022 10:11pm

Several Republican senators are challenging Attorney General Merrick Garland for his Justice Department's decision to end a program to thwart Chinese spies and asking how the Biden administration will now combat China's espionage on U.S. soil.

Led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the lawmakers penned a letter to Garland last week inquiring about the recent termination of the so-called China Initiative, which was launched by the Trump administration in 2018 to preserve America's technological edge. The program was specifically designed to identify and prosecute those engaged in hacking, stealing trade secrets, and conducting economic espionage for the Chinese government inside the U.S.

"On Feb. 23, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it was effectively ending the China Initiative and implementing a new 'Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats,' which will subsume the China Initiative's work in addition to efforts related to countries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea," the lawmakers wrote Thursday.

In a speech announcing the termination of the China Initiative, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division said that while China "stands apart" as a "brazen" espionage threat, a "broader approach" is needed to confront threats from a "variety" of countries. Olsen called this effort a "strategy for countering nation-state threats."

Republican senators expressed concern that the new approach is ill-defined and therefore may not be effective at specifically combating nefarious activities conducted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"In light of the continuing national security threat posed by the CCP, and the lack of clarity surrounding DOJ's new 'Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats,' we write seeking clarity with respect to the changes in DOJ's approach," the senators wrote. "Specifically, its enforcement efforts to counter espionage and other illicit activities conducted by the CCP."

The lawmakers listed five specific questions they want Garland to answer, including what concrete changes are expected at the Justice Department as it transitions from the China Initiative to its new program.

"Despite this critical moment and the high stakes, DOJ chose to disband its China Initiative in favor of a vague 'Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats' that appears to equate the unique and extensive threats from the CCP with those of other nation-state threats," they argued. "What concrete policies and actions will emerge from this strategy, and their adequacy to the challenge at hand, remain to be seen. We urge DOJ to formally recognize and reprioritize the threat presented by the CCP to U.S. national security, and ask that you reconsider your decision to disband the China Initiative."

Chinese espionage costs the U.S. between $200 billion-$600 billion dollars a year in stolen intellectual property, according to Mike Orlando, acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

In a Jan. 31 speech, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the threats posed by China inside the U.S. as uniquely troubling.

"When we tally up what we see in our investigations — over 2,000 of which are focused on the Chinese government trying to steal our information or technology — there is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China," he said.

Wray has testified his agency is opening counterintelligence investigations into China "every 12 hours."

The China Initiative led to several arrests and convictions. Most famously, a federal jury in January found Charles Lieber, a renowned nanotechnology professor who chaired Harvard's Chemistry Department, guilty of lying to government authorities about multiple links to Beijing.

However, the Justice Department ended the program, admittedly bowing to pressure from a loose coalition of lawmakers, nonprofits, and academics who argued the initiative targeted people of Asian descent with racial profiling.

"We have heard concerns from the civil rights community that the China Initiative fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias," Olsen said in his speech. "By grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, we helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic, or familial ties to China differently."

The senators countered such concerns shouldn't have warranted ending the China Initiative altogether.

"If DOJ mishandled particular cases, pursued cases without sufficient evidence, or otherwise acted in a manner that raised legitimate concerns about racial bias or other improprieties, those problems should be addressed on a case-by-case basis," they said. "The wholesale abandonment of a national security initiative because of unproven allegations of racial profiling should not happen."

Leading the pressure campaign to kill the China Initiative were Yale University and Stanford University. Nearly 100 Yale professors signed on to a letter castigating the DOJ program as invasive and discriminatory. They also endorsed an earlier open letter signed by 177 Stanford faculty members to Garland claiming the initiative "disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese origin."

Neither letter mentioned that both Yale and Stanford have links to the CCP.

For example, Neil Shen, founding and managing partner of Sequoia Capital China, the Chinese arm of the U.S.-based venture capital giant Sequoia Capital, is a major player in the CCP with extensive ties to Yale.

Indeed, Shen is on the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political body designed to advance the CCP's interests, and rubs elbows with members of the CCP's Politburo. He was also appointed chairman of the Yale School of Management board of advisors last year.

In 2014, Shen founded the Yale Center Beijing, which is used to facilitate relationships between Yale professors and Chinese enterprises. He's also facilitated numerous joint ventures between Yale and Chinese companies and universities.

In 2020, federal authorities arrested a Stanford researcher for failing to disclose she was actively working for the Chinese military.

Another Stanford academic, Fei-Fei Li, has links to the CCP and indicated she's helped China with artificial intelligence capabilities, which have potential military applications.

The Department of Education in 2020 flagged Yale and Stanford, along with 10 other schools, for failing to disclose a combined $6.5 billion in foreign funding, including from China.

A year earlier, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a bipartisan report outlining how the CCP has a strategy of engaging in propaganda operations on U.S. campuses to change and soften American impressions of China.

The purpose is to encourage "complacency toward China's pervasive, long-term initiatives against both government critics at home and businesses and academic institutions abroad," according to the report. "Those long-term initiatives include its Made in China 2025 plan, a push to lead the world in certain advanced technology manufacturing. The Thousand Talents program is another state-run initiative designed to recruit Chinese researchers in the United States to return to China for significant financial gain — bringing with them the knowledge gained at U.S. universities and companies."

Rubio and his fellow senators noted in their letter that espionage "often occurs at American universities and government agencies which are among the most vulnerable and highly sought-after targets of the CCP because they are responsible for conducting research in emerging fields that are critical to American innovation and are often well funded by federal research dollars."

One problem with distinguishing between Chinese espionage and legitimate research is that China doesn't distinguish between the civil and military domains and commercial and military applications. As part of its strategy, Beijing blurs the lines between academia, industry, the private sector, and military research, according to experts.

Through this strategy, numerous U.S. universities — and even some K-12 schools — support China's military-industrial complex.

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