Law Enforcement, Intelligence Community Regard Chinese Espionage As Significant Threat
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When a Chinese woman turned up at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year with four cellphones, a hard drive and some other electronic equipment, concerns about Chinese espionage flashed across the headlines. Whatever she was up to, it was only the latest episode in a series that have led the U.S. intelligence community to intensify its focus on Chinese spying.
The Wall Street Journal reports that law enforcement and intelligence officials now regard Chinese espionage as the single most significant long-term strategic threat facing the U.S. And they don't just mean the economic espionage that the Trump administration has been denouncing during the trade talks.
Joining us now to talk about what kinds of Chinese spies could be lurking in the U.S. is Wall Street Journal reporter Dustin Volz. Welcome.
DUSTIN VOLZ: Thank you, Ailsa.
CHANG: So as we mentioned, there's been a lot of conversation here about economic espionage by China, like trade secret theft, other intellectual property violations. But you say that intelligence officials are telling you China has gotten better and bolder at traditional spy games. Explain what they mean by that.
VOLZ: In addition to the economic espionage, there are a host of cases that have been made public by the Justice Department in recent months that show that China is recruiting former U.S. intelligence officials, former State Department officials to steal U.S. government secrets. And this is something that officials say has grown more alarming in recent years as China seemingly is getting a lot better at it.
CHANG: And what kind of intelligence do the Chinese seem most interested in? What do your intelligence sources say?
VOLZ: Well, among other things, Chinese intelligence agencies are interested in what Washington wants to do with China.
VOLZ: So one of the former officials that they recruited was a State Department official who was passing them information about upcoming bilateral talks between the two countries.
But they're also very interested in what we're doing as well undercover. For example, the case of Jerry Lee is fascinating for a variety of reasons, one of them being there are deep concerns that he is actually part of how China was able to uncover U.S. intelligence sources in China. This came out a couple of years ago that a number of our spies overseas there had been killed and that they cultivated this former intelligence official of ours...
CHANG: Jerry Lee.
VOLZ: ...Jerry Lee - to find out who was spying there and compromise a lot of ongoing operations.
CHANG: And how are these individuals cultivated to be spies for China? What are sort of the methods used?
VOLZ: It's simple psychology, and it's simple incentives. So a lot of what we see is people in financial dire straits - you know, offering cash gifts, offering them rewards that'll help them and their family, you know. And so one of the things that China's been very good at is identifying people that they think are going to be receptive to those sort of inducements.
CHANG: And these individuals are not, like, all Chinese people or people who are sympathetic to China. They're people who are interested in personal payments for whatever reason.
VOLZ: Exactly. So Jerry Lee was born in Hong Kong and became a naturalized citizen here. But many of the other cases that have emerged publicly in recent months have been in no way affiliated to China.
CHANG: Right. And one of the ways they may be able to target certain individuals is because of all the hacks that have been happening. In 2015, more than 20 million files from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management were stolen. The U.S. suspected China was behind that theft, but China denies any involvement.
How might that hack be linked to some of the Chinese espionage intelligence officials are seeing?
VOLZ: Right. So it's easy to imagine Chinese intelligence agencies sifting through these enormous personnel files on government officials that include their families, their residences, their psychological histories, you know, any potential previous drug abuse - really deep, granular details about current and former American officials.
VOLZ: And they're able to look at that, potentially correlate it with other databases that they've hacked from various banks or other businesses and find out where certain people are, what they're doing, what their financial status is, what their mental health is and then reach out to them on social media or through other more covert means.
CHANG: I mean, for so long, there's been so much focus in the intel community - and also in the public's imagination - on Russian spying. How is the Chinese threat different from the Russian threat?
VOLZ: This is one of the most interesting things is that you talk to officials, and they say Russia is absolutely a very serious threat but that Russia is really not a long-term strategic threat in the way that China is. And that's because China is an enormous country with a ton of economic force. But also they have enormous resources that they can dedicate to their espionage games, both the economic espionage and the traditional spying that we're talking about today.
China has thousands and thousands of people that they can dedicate to this, and they're willing to use it. And so far, they've shown that they're not going to let up.
CHANG: Dustin Volz covers cybersecurity and intelligence for The Wall Street Journal.
Thank you very much for coming into the studio today.
VOLZ: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF EBB AND FLOD'S "OCTOBER SKIES")
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