FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday that investigations of Chinese espionage are open in all 50 states.
“I think China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways, represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country,” he said.
Wray explained the threat is so massive because it represents a “whole state effort” by China.
“It is economic espionage, as well as traditional espionage, it is nontraditional collectors, as well as traditional intelligence operatives, it’s human sources, as well as cyber means,” he said.
Wray reported the FBI’s investigations into Chinese economic espionage cover “everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts and everything in between.”
The FBI director did not dismiss the threat posed by Russian espionage and its efforts to interfere with elections, but said China was the more troubling threat because it has a coherent plan to position itself as the “sole dominant superpower.”
“They’re trying to replace the US in that role and so theirs is a long-term game that’s focused on just about every industry, every quarter of society in many ways. It involves academia, it involves research and development, it involves everything from agriculture to high tech. And so theirs is a more pervasive, broader approach but in many ways more of a long-term threat to the country,” he warned.
This is not the first time Wray has issued such advisories. In March, he told NBC News “there’s no country that’s even close” to China in terms of espionage activities against the United States. He said China targeted everything from new companies to Fortune 500 firms.
NBC noted Wray has been criticized by Asian-American groups for exaggerating the threat posed by Chinese visitors and immigrants, but he defended his assessment by insisting no racial or national prejudice influenced FBI policy. “When we open investigations into economic espionage, time and time again, they keep leading back to China,” he said.
One of the specific statements that drew criticism from Asian-American groups was Wray telling the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that Chinese students enrolled in advanced science and mathematics programs posed a counterintelligence risk.
“The use of non-traditional collectors, especially in the academic setting — whether it’s professors, scientists, students — we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well, it’s across basically every discipline. And I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues,” he remarked, revealing that the FBI is investigating groups backed by the Chinese government that facilitate dialogue with American scholars.
China’s efforts have been directed against the U.S. intelligence community as well. A former clandestine CIA officer named Kevin Mallory was convicted in June of passing classified information to Chinese agents using a cell phone that turned out to have insufficient protection from FBI analysis. Mallory claimed he was actually still working for U.S. interests and was attempting to lure his Chinese handlers into a trap, but the jury rejected his argument.
The New York Times observed that Mallory was but the latest high-profile example of China attempting to recruit former U.S. intelligence officers:
In January, the F.B.I. arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, another former C.I.A. officer, who had repeated contacts with Chinese intelligence. He has been charged with illegally possessing classified information and conspiring to spy for the Chinese.
Last week, prosecutors charged Ron Rockwell Hansen, a former Defense Intelligence Agency case officer, with attempted espionage. The F.B.I. began investigating Mr. Hansen’s activities in 2014.
In a prescient March op-ed for the New York Times, author David Wise worried that the media’s preoccupation with Russia was obscuring “the significant inroads made by Chinese intelligence and cyberspies.” He pointed out that the Jerry Chun Shing Lee case mentioned above involved a turncoat CIA operative allegedly ratting out an American effort to infiltrate China, leading to over a dozen American assets executed or imprisoned.
“The Chinese government approaches its spycraft differently from either Russia or the United States. It is often much more patient. The Chinese may take years to develop a source and plant one inside American intelligence organizations. But they have managed to do just that inside the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Pentagon, and the State Department,” Wise warned.
Wise quoted former FBI analyst Paul Moore’s colorful explanation of China’s approach to intelligence operations:
If a beach were a target, the Russians would send in a sub, frogmen would steal ashore in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand and take them back to Moscow. The U.S. would send over satellites and produce reams of data. The Chinese would send in a thousand tourists, each assigned to collect a single grain of sand. When they returned, they would be asked to shake out their towels. And they would end up knowing more about the sand than anyone else.
The State Department said this week that it is carefully “monitoring” China’s commitment to a 2015 agreement between then-President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping that cyber espionage would no longer be used for economic gain. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has accused China of repeatedly violating this agreement, although specific allegations have been prosecuted as of yet.
“There is a working consensus in U.S. circles that China’s observable theft of American firms’ [intellectual property] by cyber means has decreased but not gone away,” an industry source told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.