US intelligence accuses China of using student spies to steal secrets

US intelligence accuses China of using student spies to steal secrets
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U.S. intelligence officials say China is using students studying in the U.S. to steal secrets and spy on other Chinese people, according to a CNN feature published Friday.

Current and former intelligence officials, lawmakers and several experts told CNN that Beijing inserts spies into the 350,000 students China sends to the U.S. every year to undermine American industries and recruit more potential spies.

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"We assess that China's intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means," according to the intelligence community's World Wide Threat Assessment released Tuesday.

Multiple former U.S. officials told CNN that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have warned for over a decade that universities could become soft targets for foreign intelligence services to use student and staff to steal new technology and suggest other Chinese civilians living in the U.S. to be recruited as spies.

Senior officials have sought to renew the urgency surrounding the issue in recent months by underlining the threat during congressional testimony and speeches at security forums.

While the vast majority of Chinese students are in the U.S. for legitimate purposes, officials told CNN the Trump administration is continuing to tackle counterintelligence concerns regarding vulnerabilities at institutions of higher education. 

"We want to be able to tap into that talent pool and not lose them back to China," one official told CNN.

“We allow 350,000 or so Chinese students here every year,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said last April during an Aspen Institute conference. “That's a lot. We have a very liberal visa policy for them. Ninety-nine point nine percent of those students are here legitimately and doing great research and helping the global economy. But it is a tool that is used by the Chinese government to facilitate nefarious activity here in the U.S.”

Chinese students constitute the largest foreign student body in the U.S., a group that continues to grow.

China denies it uses foreign students to spy on the U.S. 

Administration officials told CNN the State Department is considering imposing tighter vetting measures on student visa applications to address the problem. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE has also said any resolution in an ongoing trade war with Beijing must also deal with China’s efforts to steal government secrets and intellectual property.

Since 2017, the Department of Justice has also indicted several individuals and corporations on allegations of economic espionage and intellectual property theft. 

While officials admit combating the efforts is difficult, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year he is “encouraged” by efforts to tackle foreign spying. 

“American companies are waking up, American universities are waking up, our foreign partners are waking up,” Wray said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last year.

But officials warn that while technological gains are made, foreign adversaries’ efforts to exploit U.S. universities will continue. 

"Despite active engagement with academia, industry, and the greater public on this issue, however, foreign adversary efforts to exploit America's accessible academic environment continue to grow," E.W. Priestap, assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division, told lawmakers in June last year. 

"In particular, as internet access, cyber exploitation, transnational travel, and payment technologies proliferate, so, too, do foreign adversaries' options for exploiting America's schools for domestic gain."