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The U.S. has long been reluctant to point fingers at the countries most likely to steal its business ideas and technology. But a report released today does just that. It's called "Foreign Spies Stealing U.S. Economic Secrets in Cyberspace." The U.S. agency responsible for counterintelligence says China is the world's leading source of economic espionage. And number two? It's Russia.

NPR's Tom Gjelten has our story.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: U.S. officials have long complained privately that China and Russia are out to steal U.S. trade secrets, intellectual property, and high technology. But in public, they refer obliquely to some nations or our rivals. Until today, when the national counterintelligence executive, Robert Bryant, stood at a podium and did not mince words.

ROBERT BRYANT: China and Russia, through their intelligence services and through their corporations, are attacking our research and development.

GJELTEN: Bryant's report to Congress was explicit. Chinese actors are the world's most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage. Russia's intelligence services are conducting a range of activities to collect economic information and technology from U.S. This theft, according to the report, is eroding the U.S. global economic advantage, which has long been based on technological innovation.

China and Russia are singled out in the report because, in the words of a senior intelligence official, we have to say who we consider the foreign intelligence services and countries that are doing the most harm to our status.

Music to the ears of Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, which does cyber-security training. He spoke today at the presentation of the espionage report, noting how U.S. officials usually only hint that China and Russia are stealing U.S. secrets.

ALAN PALLER: But no one ever says it. So what's magical about this is somebody got up and said what everyone knew.

GJELTEN: Robert Bryant's predecessor as the nation's counterintelligence executive, Joel Brenner, says previous efforts to highlight what China was doing, for example, were impeded by diplomatic sensitivities or sometimes just by intelligence community culture.

JOEL BRENNER: The tendency in top secret agencies just not to want to be candid. I mean, it's a habit. You know, it's an understandable habit. There's lots of things that you can't talk about when you're on the inside. But when you get to the point where the only people who aren't being told the truth is the American public, then it becomes silly.

GJELTEN: Presenting his report today, Robert Bryant said no one knows the total cost to U.S. companies from the theft of U.S. research and development secrets.

BRYANT: All we know is that the losses are extremely significant and they're extremely harmful to our national well-being.

GJELTEN: U.S. intelligence officials say Chinese leaders believe the next decade gives them a chance to catch up to the West. To do that, they need Western technology because they don't have the same tradition of innovation that the U.S. has. They can demand that foreign companies that want to do business in China must first share their technology or the Chinese can simply steal it, largely through cyber means.

In the case of Russia, the intelligence report quotes President Vladimir Putin as saying, the Russian intelligence service should "more actively protect the economic interests of our companies abroad."

Joel Brenner, who has a new book, titled "America the Vulnerable," points out that U.S. technology is what drives the American economy.

BRENNER: When we lose that technology, the ultimate result is that somebody in a foreign country is opening a factory and hiring workers, and somebody in the United States is closing a factory or laying off or not hiring workers. And so, this is not just a problem for the military and the State Department and for the owners of companies, it's a problem for the country. We are being slowly hollowed out.

GJELTEN: Among the sectors China, Russia, and other governments are said to be targeting: pharmaceuticals, aeronautics, and advanced manufacturing techniques - all areas where the U.S., until now, has had a competitive advantage.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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