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China Is The U.S.'s Top Intelligence Threat, American Officials Say


In less than a year, three former U.S. intelligence officers have either been convicted of or pled guilty to spying for China. And the U.S. Justice Department has brought almost a dozen more cases of alleged Chinese economic espionage in the same time span, which is why American officials say China is the top intelligence threat facing the United States. Here's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: As the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, John Demers sees day in and day out the scope of China's espionage operations against the U.S. That includes China's economic espionage, plundering intellectual property and trade secrets, as well as Beijing's traditional spying to steal U.S. government secrets. The scale of China's efforts, Demers says, is immense. Take just the traditional side of the tally.

JOHN DEMERS: We had, last year, three traditional espionage cases, all involving ex-intelligence community officers, going at the same time. That's unprecedented.

LUCAS: He's talking about a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer and a former CIA officer, who both pleaded guilty to spying for China. Another one, ex-CIA officer Kevin Mallory, was convicted on similar charges. Demers says that a pattern has emerged in China's efforts to recruit Americans to spy on behalf of Beijing.

DEMERS: It's risky for the Chinese to operate here directly. So what they would rather do - and so - what we see them do, in terms of their practice is reaching out, very often, across LinkedIn or social media.

LUCAS: Here's how it works. The Chinese intelligence officers will do their research on the Internet. They identify the information they want and people who might have access to it. They then initiate contact, and they take a light-handed approach. Often, they pose as an academic, interested in someone's work or as a business person who has an exciting job opportunity. Using that cover story, the Chinese intelligence officers will try to lure the target into visiting China, all expenses paid.

DEMERS: And slowly, they start to try to get information from this person.

LUCAS: That's exactly what happened with the former CIA officer, Kevin Mallory. Chinese agents first contacted him on LinkedIn. It's a play that's also been used to target folks in the business world and academia, where China is hungry for cutting-edge technology and trade secrets. For years now, the Chinese intelligence services have hacked into U.S. companies and made off with intellectual property. And U.S. officials say, China's spies are increasingly turning to what is known as non-traditional collectors - students, researchers and business insiders - to scoop up secrets. In two recent cases, the Chinese were allegedly going after jet engine technology and the formula to produce nontoxic lining for tin cans. With this focus on China, lawmakers and members of the Chinese-American community have expressed concerns about racial profiling. Demers says it's a fair question, but he adds...

DEMERS: We are looking at suspicious behavior. We don't start with somebody's ethnicity or their nationality when we start doing an investigation. We're looking at suspicious behavior, and we're looking at the behavior of the Chinese government.

LUCAS: He points out that two of the three former U.S. intelligence officers recently nabbed for spying for China were not ethnically Chinese. Loyalty, he says, knows no ethnic boundaries. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.


Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.