U.S. Secrets Continue to Hemorrhage through Flawed Policies Governing Students, Scholars, and Institutions of Research and Learning

By Dan Cadman on February 4, 2020

On August 20 of last year, the Center published my Backgrounder titled "How U.S. Foreign Student and Exchange Visitor Policies Undercut National Security", in which I argued that current federal policies are so lax that they are nearly an open invitation to foreign intelligence services to steal critical American technologies and secrets; particularly, but not exclusively, involving China. Iran is another active player in theft of U.S. defense material and secrets, and both nations send thousands of students and exchange scholars each year to the United States.

I suggested that there are a number of pathways available to tighten those policies — things that could be achieved using federal regulations instead of relying on the unlikely possibility of congressional action to amend relevant statutes. Many of these regulatory fixes involve State Department visa processes, and existing rules overseen by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Other fixes suggested involve key departments such as Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE) using their powers to establish virtual defensive perimeters around key research centers, especially at universities where atmospheres can be so lax as to nearly guarantee a bleed-out of critical pieces of sensitive information that often end up in the collection nets of those foreign intelligence agencies. To date, nothing's been done.

Last week, we once again had ample evidence of the compelling need for our immigration and visa agencies to act. In three separate cases, all involving universities in Boston, a distinguished American professor and two Chinese nationals were charged with criminal offenses that, at their base, involve China's pervasive program to steal our secrets and technologies (see here and here).

One of the Chinese nationals, Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army, was charged among other things with visa fraud and being an unregistered foreign agent who lied to obtain entry to the United States as a "student", although it's alleged that instead she was sending U.S. military information and documents back to her intelligence and military masters. Although charged, news reports suggest she made it to China before she could be arrested, in which case there is no chance of seeing her extradited since she was acting on behalf of her government.

Another Chinese national, Zaosong Zheng, was indicted last week, although in fact he was arrested last month at the airport en route back to China with multiple vials of biological material secreted on his person. The biological material somehow related to ongoing research on cancer. One wonders whether the material in the vials would have been useful in the search for a cure for cancer or whether it had potential for development as a biological weapon — but there isn't enough information available to form such a judgment. What is known, though, is that the man was sponsored by Harvard University, and it was from a Harvard-affiliated lab that the material was heisted. This suggests that he was an "exchange scholar" and not just a foreign student.

In the third case, American professor Charles Lieber, the chairman of Harvard University's chemistry department, was charged with lying to the National Institutes of Health in grant applications, as well as to DOD investigators, in which he concealed a highly lucrative deal he cut with China to conduct work at Wuhan University of Technology. The contract was apparently part of China's Thousand Talents program, which lures prominent foreign researchers to China with promises of big money and unlimited access to laboratories and research centers but only on condition that they bring with them and share with Chinese authorities all proprietary information relating to their research studies and, in addition, give away to the Chinese government all intellectual property rights for whatever comes out of their research.

The ironclad conditions for participating in the Thousand Talents program are beyond ironic, in that at the same time China — the world's greatest intellectual property thief — demands the intellectual property rights arising from research, they also demand that incoming researchers hand over to China the proprietary information that, more often than not, isn't theirs to share because it belongs to the organization — such as the National Institutes of Health — that underwrote the research that made these individuals attractive to China in the first place.

According to the New York Times, "Dr. Lieber has made no secret of his work with Chinese partners, joining five senior Chinese officials and scientists in 2013 to found the WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Technology." This is probably true, and suggests exactly how slow off the mark the federal government has been in moving effectively to prevent the transfer of information to China. In Lieber's case, the consequences are almost certainly severe since he has been on the cutting edge of the interface between nanotechnology and chemical receptors in the human body capable of responding to nanotech signals. This is the stuff of science fiction made real, and it makes one blanch to think of the years of critical U.S.-funded research and trial-and-error blithely passed along to China by this man.

Daniel Tenreiro, writing in National Review Online, suggests that Lieber, and others like him, are susceptible to China's lure because it makes instantly available all of the things that can only be obtained by weaving through the labyrinthian processes of federal grant procedures, and therefore the United States must do more to mirror China's lavish open-handedness. I think it's more simple than that, and involves personal greed. By Tenreiro's account, Lieber was getting a stipend of $200,000 every month. The only difference between Lieber and Hunter Biden is that at least Lieber knew something about his subject matter. And the only reason China offers that kind of money is because it's a bargain. Lieber, clearly an intelligent man, quite possibly a genius, cannot be such a fool as to not have understood fully the kind of Faustian bargain he'd made.

U.S. law enforcement and prosecuting officials continue their slow slog picking off of illicit transfer agents such as these three, one at a time. Meantime, the doors of America's premier research institutions remain figuratively open to all comers, including every manner of spy or schemer masquerading as a scholar or student.

If China wins the technology race — literally, at our own expense because they steal what we painstakingly build, discover, or invent — we have only ourselves to blame. Isn't it time that our government instituted a comprehensive multi-department and multi-agency strategy to change this state of affairs?