U.S. intelligence agencies are encouraging American research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions, as U.S. suspicion toward China spreads to academia.
Since last year, FBI officials have visited at least 10 members of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 research universities, with an unclassified list of Chinese research institutions and companies.
Universities have been advised to monitor students and scholars associated with those entities on American campuses, according to three administrators briefed at separate institutions. FBI officials have also urged universities to review ongoing research involving Chinese individuals that could have defense applications, the administrators say.
"We are being asked what processes are in place to know what labs they are working at or what information they are being exposed to," Fred Cate, vice president of research at Indiana University, tells NPR. "It's not a question of just looking for suspicious behavior — it's actually really targeting specific countries and the people from those countries."
In a statement responding to NPR's questions, the FBI said it "regularly engages with the communities we serve. As part of this continual outreach, we meet with a wide variety of groups, organizations, businesses, and academic institutions. The FBI has met with top officials from academia as part of our ongoing engagement on national security matters."
While law enforcement agents have discussed university monitoring of other nationalities as well, these FBI briefings addressed visitors from China in particular who are involved in science, technology, engineering and math.
Such FBI requests are advisory, not mandatory. Administrators say the universities briefed by the FBI have not yet implemented additional monitoring protocols. They say they have pushed back because of skepticism of the threat level and because the FBI requests lack specificity in implementation.
Separately, intelligence officers have also briefed hundreds of American CEOs, investors and think tank experts on Chinese cybersecurity and espionage threats. "What we provide them is the classified information that we get from the collection priorities of China specifically: What they're trying to collect on, what they're interested in our campuses," William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told NPR.
This March, U.S. intelligence officials briefed about 70 college administrators of the American Council on Education, according to university participants. The officials said the presidents should increase oversight of Chinese researchers and avoid research funding from Chinese firms like Huawei.
The presidents were "skeptical of many of the claims, but many of them receive U.S. government research money," says a participant briefed at the meeting and who is not authorized to speak publicly.
The nation's primary biomedical research agency, the National Institutes of Health, is now investigating grant recipients for not disclosing collaboration or funding from China and for sharing peer-review grant material with Chinese researchers. "Foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers," warned NIH Director Francis Collins in a memo sent to more than 10,000 research institutions last August.
In May, the Commerce Department put Huawei on a trade blacklist, which prevents U.S. companies from selling products to the Chinese telecom firm without federal authorization. But the pressure to divest from research collaborations with Huawei and ZTE, another telecom company, began early last year, said three university administrators.
"For months up until [May], government officials were saying, 'We really don't think you should be doing business with Huawei,' " says Cate. "We said, 'Why don't you put them on a list and then we won't do business?' And they're like, 'Oh, the list process is way too slow.' "
The FBI visits have caused uncertainty among U.S. academics about whether to accept federal grants for research that may involve Chinese scholars. "We don't say you can't, because we don't have any legal authority to say they can't," Cate says. "But we say you should be aware there may be some sensitivity about this."
Several university presidents have issued statements this year reaffirming their commitment to Chinese researchers and students.
Last month, Yale University's president, Peter Salovey, said he was "working with my presidential colleagues in the Association of American Universities (AAU) to urge federal agencies to clarify concerns they have about international academic exchanges. The AAU has encouraged agencies to use the tools already in place, such as export controls, while affirming the principle of open academic exchange for basic research."
Salovey's office declined to comment further when contacted by NPR.
Universities and companies use software that automatically reviews international research collaborations, commercial transactions and other exchanges and then matches them up with existing blacklists to ensure they do not violate export control laws.
Numerous universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Illinois, have already cut off research collaborations with Huawei.
Besides Huawei, no other Chinese entities singled out to universities by the FBI are currently on a trade blacklist, according to the three university administrators.
That means any monitoring of specific Chinese individuals at the university level would have to be done manually, when admitting or employing them, possibly leaving a wide margin of error during evaluation.
"You're really looking at compliance systems that have to be rolled out on a department-by-department basis and person-by-person level to see if you're sticking research data in an envelope and mailing it to China," Cate says.
The Trump administration has long accused China of stealing American technology, a key factor behind the trade war between the two countries.
As the mood in Washington, D.C., becomes more aggressive toward China, intelligence agencies have been visiting not just universities but also American tech companies to dissuade them from collaborations with Chinese entities.
"We have to wake this country up to what China is doing," Sen. Mark Warner, Va.-D, said at the Brookings Institution last month. "For this reason, I have been convening meetings between the intelligence community and outside stakeholders in business and academia to ensure they have the full threat picture and, hopefully, make different decisions about Chinese partnerships."
Chinese students have come under particular suspicion. More than 340,000 were studying in the U.S. last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Since last July, Chinese students studying, in particular, science and technology fields must undergo additional screening, resulting in delayed visas for hundreds of students.
In May, Republicans introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would deny visas to Chinese researchers affiliated with Chinese military institutions.
"The Chinese intelligence services strategically use every tool at their disposal — including state-owned businesses, students, researchers and ostensibly private companies — to systematically steal information and intellectual property," FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the Council on Foreign Relations in April.
Former FBI agents say the bureau's recent visits to universities are merely an extension of long-running efforts to collaborate with the private sector and academia on national security issues.
"What the FBI has been doing is really more of an outreach and education program," says Todd K. Hulsey, a former counterintelligence official who retired from the FBI in 2014. Hulsey explained that such meetings began as early as two decades ago over concerns that Chinese student associations were fronts for Chinese intelligence recruiting: "It's to let these universities know that there is an existing threat to our economy."
National security concerns at universities increased after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which sent a wave of former Soviet bloc researchers to the U.S., says Edward Shaw, a former FBI special agent who retired in 2014.
Even back then, however, government agencies contacted universities with specific individuals of concern rather than presenting a broad list of institutions.
"It's casting a wide net," says Shaw. "When you're getting information from various government agencies and other trusted sources that a specific person is in the country and you are more targeted, you're using your resources better."
NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre contributed reporting.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. government is urging universities to monitor the Chinese researchers who work for them. Intelligence agencies cite concerns over spying and the theft of intellectual property. NPR's Emily Feng joins us in the studio. Welcome.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: So you've been digging into this. So far, what have you learned? What's actually happening?
FENG: What university administrators have been telling us is the FBI, other counterintelligence officials had been visiting them over the last year or so. And they're encouraging universities to develop protocols for monitoring the researchers from China that come work for them in STEM fields. So these are science, technology, engineering and math fields. The FBI wants to know what these students are working on, which labs they're working in and any affiliations they might have with Chinese institutions that the FBI finds suspect.
And this is all because there are these fears now that Chinese students and researchers can be co-opted as nontraditional spies for China to steal technology and help China get ahead. Here's Bill Evanina. He's the top counterintelligence official for the U.S. government.
BILL EVANINA: We have to do a better, more effective job in the government explaining what that threat is, what does it look like and feel like on campus and what is that technology they might be developing or researching on campus that adversaries are looking forward to stealing, whether it be intellectual property, trade secrets or IP theft or just research in general.
CORNISH: You used the term nontraditional spies. Can you talk about this idea of the threat of espionage from Chinese researchers? How real is that?
FENG: There have been a couple of documented cases in the last year of academics who've been accused of espionage and fired. And there also have been a lot of high-profile cases in the last year of people investigated and then exonerated. The problem here is that universities are saying they're told to monitor researchers, but they're not given any evidence as to why they should.
CORNISH: Is this approach from the FBI or from the federal government unusual? Is this how they usually act on these kinds of concerns?
FENG: I mean, they liaise with the private sector, and that's basically the comment that the FBI gave to me when I asked them about this for the story. What's exceptional here, though, is just how broad the briefings are. The FBI is essentially going to universities and preemptively saying, can you give us information on these people simply because you have a collaboration with a Chinese researcher or Chinese institutions? And just a sign of how worried the U.S. is about Chinese espionage, particularly in academia.
Intelligence officials also told NPR that they're going to hundreds of CEOs, investors, think tanks, basically anyone who travels to China frequently, and telling them, you got to be on alert for cybersecurity threats and espionage threats.
CORNISH: To go back to schools for a second, though, how are universities reacting to this?
FENG: They're obviously not happy. I mean, they want to protect U.S. intellectual property. At the same time, they want more specific instructions, and they don't want to just target Chinese people. It's important to note they do have compliance protocols to make sure they're not, you know, doing research with a banned company. But they say right now the directions they're given are so vague that it could lead to a lot of subjective error and discrimination.
I talked to Fred Cate. He's a vice president of Research at Indiana University, and he says all this could harm research.
FRED CATE: Given the penalties involved, we're - there's going to be a pressure to lean on the side of conservatism and withholding more and more information.
FENG: What he's saying is that universities could eventually decide to just limit the kind of research they do and particularly who works on that research.
CORNISH: Emily, it sounds like universities basically have to walk this line between wanting to do cutting-edge research with the best and brightest in the world, but then also the U.S. government telling them to watch out. I mean, is it possible to monitor so many foreign students?
FENG: University leaders I spoke to say they don't have the right answer right now. There are about 340,000 Chinese students who come every single year. But they're going to have to make a decision because right now universities are unwillingly at this forefront of a question of how to balance national security and maintain your global engagement with the research community. And whatever decision they make is going to have real significance. I mean, it not only affects how global research is done but also whether or not Chinese American and Chinese researchers come under scrutiny.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Thanks for your reporting.
FENG: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.