Chinese Spies Pose Unprecedented Threat to US Beyond Elections to Mass Infiltration of Businesses, Intelligence Officials Say

Current and former U.S. officials have told Newsweek that China is the top counterintelligence risk to the United States, posing a unique and unprecedented threat spanning far beyond interference in the upcoming election, including the mass infiltration of the private communications networks of U.S. businesses and organizations that are not protected by governmental security networks.

"There is no country that presents a broader and more comprehensive threat to our ideas, innovation, and economic security than China," the FBI told Newsweek in a statement. "The threat takes many different forms, and it is the FBI's top counterintelligence priority."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence offered a similar analysis. "China remains a top focus of the Counterintelligence community and has been for many years," the office said in a separate statement sent to Newsweek.

The U.S. is still reeling from reports of a concerted effort on the part of the Russian government to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election, and enters the heat of the 2020 campaign with a particular wariness, eyeing foreign powers for signs of illicit attempts to sway the vote. But when it comes to China, increasingly viewed as the top strategic competitor to the U.S. on the world stage, the U.S. intelligence community sees a much wider and more capable threat, and they are sounding the alarm more loudly than ever before.

FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed last month that the bureau was opening a "new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours," a rate that's overwhelming federal resources in ways never before seen. In February, Wray said there were up to 1,000 such cases open in the FBI's books.

This massive Chinese campaign uses a "whole-of-government" approach involving multiple techniques to access all forms of information to advance the goals of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the FBI told Newsweek.

"China continues to use cyber espionage to support national security priorities, with targets including the U.S. government, its allies, and U.S. companies," the FBI said. "Most detected Chinese cyber operations against U.S. private industry are focused on cleared defense contractors or IT and communications firms whose products and services support government and private sector networks worldwide."

china, flag, computer, code
An artistic rendering shows the national flag of China illustrated in computer code. BeeBright/iStock/Getty Images

These private networks, which include multinational firms, research institutes and academic institutions, are not backed by government security.

"Counterintelligence is the prevention of theft," Scott Olson, former FBI counterintelligence supervisor and assistant special agent in charge of intelligence and counterintelligence, told Newsweek, "and it's very easy to prevent if the government has control over all the important stuff. But what we have now is a situation where the government does not have control over the important stuff. It's in the custody of private companies."

In China, the government has a hand in most critical industries, ensuring a state-sponsored shield over information of high national importance. That same government also wields an electronic sword to pierce through foreign databases, sometimes with the tools of the People's Liberation Army, the world's largest standing armed forces that have grown increasingly high-tech year by year.

"China has been advancing its cyber-attack capabilities since 2015 by integrating its military cyber-attack and espionage resources," the FBI told Newsweek.

That year, the Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered a massive reorganization of the People's Liberation Army that included the establishment of the Strategic Support Force, which includes cyber warfare units. Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, told Newsweek that China's People's Liberation Army has devoted entire battalions to gathering data (battalions consist of companies of up to 1,000 soldiers).

He said that, while it is Russia that the FBI is focused on in terms of safeguarding the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, this was not due to China's lack of capabilities, but to a difference in the goals of Moscow and Beijing, which he said had been treated with a "false equivalency" by some political commentators.

"If China decided to truly interfere in our election, they would make Russia look like the junior varsity because of the volume that they can put behind it," Figliuzzi said, adding that Russia pursued a "brazen, aggressive approach," while "there's a subtlety and a long-term view over on the Chinese side."

For the FBI, it's a case of different enemies with different goals.

"I think one distinction is that China wants to dominate the U.S., and Russia would like to destroy us," Figliuzzi added. "And China has invested the resources, the money and the planning for the long game, and Russia is looking to hurt us kind of by doing a hit and run wherever they can."

One senior intelligence official who asked not to be named described the scope of the threat from Moscow. "While many lawmakers concentrate on the 'Chinese threat,' the Kremlin tentacles permeate multiple dimensions of Western society," the official told Newsweek. "Russia is winning the information war via a beautiful disinformation campaign."

But for China, taking on Washington would first mean challenging its global hegemony in multiple, crucial sectors using the vast resources of the People's Republic.

"Right now, the United States is not only the dominant military power, it's the dominant scientific and technological power," Matt Brazil, a former U.S. Army officer and diplomat who serves as a non-resident Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told Newsweek. "The U.S. sets the standards on everything from the Internet to biological research and artificial intelligence."

He said China is looking to change the balance of geopolitical power, while maintaining sound economic ties with the U.S. and others across the globe.

"If you're China, and you know that you have interests that are inimical to U.S. interests, particularly regarding their position in East Asia and the U.S. desire to support allies around China's periphery," Brazil said, "in order to have your will, in order to meet your goal of rejuvenating China, you have to change that dynamic so that China is not only a meaningful competitor to the U.S., but maybe that the rest of the world begins to follow China's lead in these areas."

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A poster for the Chinese People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force is seen as shared by the armed forces on August 24, 2018. The branch, established in 2015, oversees cyber, space and electronic warfare. Chinese People's Liberation Army

Chinese officials have defended their doctrine as purely defensive and based on mutual cooperation among nations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian asked reporters in Beijing on Wednesday whether the U.S. could say the same for themselves.

"Who is the one that owns hundreds of military bases around the world, illegally waged war and military operations against countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria, and sent ships to and planes over far-flung waters to flex their muscles?" Zhao asked. "Who is the one that has been behaving out of a Cold War mentality, quitting treaties and multilateral organizations and wielding sticks and fists like crazy?

"The right answers are not difficult to get as long as these U.S. politicians respect the facts," he added.

But while Douglas Wise, a former CIA senior Intelligence Service and deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also noted that promoting China's sovereignty over areas like self-ruling Taiwan and semi-autonomous Hong Kong remained a major goal, he said the ultimate goal was regaining their historic position as the top global power.

"What they want is a competitive advantage against the United States, whether it's in the intelligence world, in the economic world, in the technological world and the innovation world, in the defense in the defense world or in the policy world," Wise told Newsweek.

As the U.S. Intelligence Community focuses on what it considers to be a near-term Russian threat to elections, officials both current and former look to China.

"The size and scope of the China threat requires vast U.S. counterintelligence resources," Figliuzzi, who authored the forthcoming book The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau's Code of Excellence, said. "Countering the China threat is like trying to divert a massive flood. No matter how many resources you throw at it, they will be overwhelmed and damage will be done."