Top security officials issue stark warning of Chinese espionage efforts

Top security officials issued a stark warning about China's espionage efforts against the United States on Wednesday, labeling the country as one of the greatest global threats to the U.S. economy and national security.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, federal representatives from the FBI, Department of Justice (DOJ), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that while Russia is the threat currently looming in the public consciousness, China is the real long-term threat to watch.

"[China] is the most severe counterintelligence threat facing our country today," said Bill Priestap, the FBI's assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division. 

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Priestap said China should be at the top of the global threat list, noting that they are working with government agencies, U.S. universities, and other organizations to educate them about the threat, capabilities, and methodologies of Chinese cyber efforts.

"Make no mistake: the Chinese government is proposing itself as an alternative model for the world, one without a democratic system of government, and it is seeking to undermine the free and open rules-based order we helped establish following World War II," he added during his opening remarks.

Officials described China as creating an uneven playing field, partly stemming from its aggressive efforts to exploit the openness of markets abroad, while also ruling with a tight-fist at home that deprives its citizens of their rights and liberties that a democracy would provide. 

John Demers, Assistant Attorney General at the DOJ's National Security Division, said China has tapped its intelligence services to target the tradecraft of American companies.

"The playbook is simple: rob, replicate, and replace," Demers said during the hearing, noting that the cases of Chinese espionage efforts against the U.S. appear to be "increasing."

"While China aspires to be a leading nation, it does not act like one. China is instead pursuing its goals through malign behaviors that exploit features of a free-market economy and an open society like ours," Demers told the lawmakers.

The warning comes shortly after reports that a data breach of Marriott's systems -- in which the personal information of roughly 500 million guests was compromised -- was allegedly a result of Chinese hackers seeking to gather intelligence.

Christopher Krebs, DHS's director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, declined to confirm whether China was behind the attack when asked, stating that his role is to shore up U.S. defenses against hostile cyber activity.

The hack, in which data like customers' passports may have been exposed, comes amid reports the Trump administration is also gearing up to condemn Beijing this week over suspected economic espionage and its hacking campaigns.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that multiple government agencies are set to name and blame China over what U.S. officials say is a pattern of illegal behavior, including seeking to steal trade secrets and government information -- a move that would likely to further heighten tensions between the two countries amid a trade war truce.

The U.S. has also brought a series of recent cases against Chinese-linked hackers.

In late October, the DOJ unsealed charges against a group of Chinese intelligence officers, alleging that they hacked into a series of private companies’ computer systems in the U.S. and abroad as part of an effort to steal sensitive commercial aviation data.

Krebs said China continues to actively target "U.S. government and private sector entities."

"Most detected Chinese cyber operations against U.S. private industry are focused on cleared defense contractors or information technology and communications firms whose products and services support government and private sector networks worldwide," Krebs told the Judiciary members.

Krebs also warned about the risk of China conducting cyber operations against the U.S. by going after the U.S. supply chain.

These warnings about the threat of Chinese espionage comes as Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government Five things to watch during Barr’s confirmation hearing McConnell rebukes Steve King over white nationalist comments MORE (R-Iowa) is stalling the nomination of a top counterintelligence official, who President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchumer unsatisfied with AG nominee Barr's position on Mueller probe House passes disaster relief bill to fund government through Feb. 8 Overnight Defense: Four Americans killed in Syria suicide attack | State of the Union becomes latest shutdown flashpoint | Missile defense review on track for Thursday release MORE tapped to lead the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in February.

Grassley said in June that he would not move forward with confirming William Evanina until the intelligence official provides him with details tied to the Russia investigation, stating he had no "objection to his credentials."

He has specifically pointed to text messages between former FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page — two officials who sent disparaging text messages about Trump during the 2016 election — because Evanina's name is mentioned in the exchanges.

Grassley told The Hill on Wednesday that his hold is part of a battle to get information from these agencies, stating that it is part of the FBI and DOJ's "usual scheme" where they deny their information requests and hide behind the intelligence community.

"So you hold up a nominee like that just as leverage to get the information," Grassley said. "So why are they impeding me doing my constitutional job of oversight?" 

Evanina is currently serving in his appointed role on an acting basis, but the position requires Senate confirmation.