More Evidence Yet of China's Systemic Penetration of U.S. Academic and Research Institutions

By Dan Cadman on March 4, 2020

Another prominent researcher, Anming Hu, has been taken into custody for inappropriately sharing sensitive information with the People's Republic of China (PRC) while hiding his relationship with that country. Although the Department of Justice (DOJ) press release doesn't say he's an American citizen, that's a reasonable conclusion given that the data he gave to the PRC came from his work on behalf of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and federal rules require that individuals working on classified U.S. government projects must be citizens with clearances.

I'm delighted that another individual has been unmasked for engaging in espionage on behalf of what is perhaps the world's largest intelligence-gathering apparatus. But my darker side says, "Chill your enthusiasm, this is a 'shooting fish in a barrel' exercise."

Certainly the evidence seems to suggest the latter. Only a month ago, I blogged about a spate of arrests that included just such a case involving a researcher sharing his data with the PRC in return for millions of dollars and a cushy position at a Chinese university. And I have been periodically highlighting similar espionage and data theft cases for a long time now. The United States appears to be engaged in a belated game of catch-up regarding the penetration of our academic and research institutions at all levels by the PRC government.

While Hu's instant case slogs through the courts, and if (as the odds dictate) he is a naturalized American, then this is a good chance for DOJ to stretch its newfound denaturalization wings and add that charge to the others he faces, because chances are pretty darn good that Hu was working for the Chinese government all during the period before he naturalized. That's not the kind of thing that just happens overnight. People like him are groomed to work their way through the system and obtain the kind of job he obtained for the express purpose of siphoning off data and technology from our most sensitive enterprises. It's notable that the DOJ press release mentions the investigation involving not just NASA, but Department of Energy (DOE) agents. Keep in mind that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is centered in Tennessee and uses the University of Tennessee — Hu's U.S. employer — as administrator and manager of this DOE-sponsored facility engaged in many highly classified programs.

I have a few unsolicited comments and questions to offer Uncle Sam:

To the investigators and hunters: Keep up the good work. It may be like shooting fish in a barrel because of the lax practices that have been allowed to fester at U.S. academic and research institutions, but it sorely needs to be done. Sooner or later, it will dawn on even the most venal or casual in those rarified atmospheres that it's no longer business as usual, because the stakes have been ratcheted up and the U.S. government is serious about keeping its secrets. That will allow you to then concentrate your efforts on the more hardcore spies.

To the federal departments and agencies sponsoring and administering the many thousands of such grants and programs, while spending tens (hundreds?) of millions of taxpayer dollars in the process: Isn't it time to start contemplating better vetting procedures as a part of your oversight mechanisms? How about, for starters, engaging in personal interviews with the principals who will be doing the work rather than just reading grant papers and proposals prepared by their most gifted writers? Ask pointed questions, and record the answers. That will surely focus the weak-minded who otherwise might be tempted to take money or accept straw-man positions whose real purpose is to pour information into the massive PRC intelligence siphon. Conduct physical security audits of the work environs in these places. Are they lax and conducive to inappropriate revelations, whether on purpose or inadvertent, such as over water coolers and in break rooms? While you're at it, develop serious debarment procedures for those institutions whose principals and corollary researchers are caught giving away secrets, whether to the PRC or anyone else. Nothing will gain institutional attention more quickly than the fear of losing a massive amount in federal funds.

Finally, to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): When are you going to get serious about your own part in all of this, and crack down on bogus students and scholars whose purpose is to steal U.S. technology, data, and other classified or highly sensitive materials? You need to put some backbone in the folks at your Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which has the regulatory authority to strip institutions of their right to accept foreign students. When was the last time this was done, other than a couple of fourth-rate visa mills here and there? Closing visa mills down is of some significance as a matter of numbers and system integrity, but if you want to contribute to national security, then you need to work with NASA, DOE, the Defense Department, and others to ensure that academia and its correlated scientific research world take their responsibilities to shield sensitive data with the seriousness it deserves — and if they can't, then take away their right to host foreign students.

The problem seems to me that while the PRC manages and integrates its intelligence-gathering and theft operations extremely well, our government doesn't seem to have any kind of coordinated mechanism at all to defend against their (or any other hostile nation's) efforts. It's an "ad hoc-ery" of responses which does not serve our long-term interests.