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Congressional Hearing Focuses on Espionage

April 12, 2018
 
 

A congressional hearing Wednesday focused on the vulnerability of U.S. academic institutions to foreign espionage activities and intellectual property theft.

The hearing, held by two subcommittees of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, suggests that higher education is likely to continue coming under scrutiny from lawmakers who argue that it should be doing more to protect against threats posed by foreign intelligence collectors -- including what one witness, the journalist Daniel Golden, described as the “small but significant percentage of international students and faculty [who] come to help their countries gain recruits for clandestine operations, insights into U.S. government plans and access to sensitive military and civilian research.”

The hearing follows on comments Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray made in February about counterintelligence risks posed by Chinese students and what he described as the “level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector” about the risks. It also follows increasing scrutiny by lawmakers of American universities' ties with Chinese-government affiliated entities, including the Confucius Institutes, and recent indictments in connection to an Iranian cyberattack that prosecutors say targeted U.S. universities (the phishing attack was discussed in Wednesday's hearing).

“The intelligence community has warned about these threats for years, ranging from cyberattacks to human manipulation to break-ins," said Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas and chair of the full Committee on Science, Space and Technology. "We know that foreign agents routinely target American students and educators in their priority areas. Faculty and administrators must be alert and educated to spot the warning signs of foreign operations. But many in academia have been unwilling to accept reality and unwilling to take any defensive measures to protect their researchers’ work, their universities’ scientific assets and taxpayers’ investment.” Smith went on to praise the University of Texas at Austin’s recent decision to reject funding from a Chinese government-linked foundation, the China-United States Exchange Foundation, as “the type of proactive oversight that needs to occur at other colleges.”

Some lawmakers cautioned against the potential for overreaction. Representative Donald Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight, said that professors and students “need to understand the potential value of their research to foreign adversaries” and “should be properly educated about potential espionage threats and trained on how to take appropriate security measures … What I do not believe we want to do, however, is pull the welcome mat from under the more than one million foreign students who come to America to study every year.”

Higher education groups were not represented among the witnesses for the hearing, but Beyer entered into the record a joint statement from the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Council on Governmental Relations in which they stated their readiness to work with national security agencies on these issues and lamented the disbanding of one such forum for collaboration, the FBI’s National Security Higher Education Advisory Board. The FBI did not provide comment prior to deadline Wednesday about why the board was reportedly disbanded in February.

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