China ignores US nuclear technology – report says it needs to fight back more against threat

Strider Technologies published a comprehensive review of China’s efforts to obtain American technology to advance China’s own interests. The Los Alamos Club Review, How the People’s Republic of China Hired Top Scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory to Develop Its Military Programs, is a deep dive into how China’s efforts focus on nuclear secrets.

FSO required reading

The bottom line, from this writer’s point of view, is that the report should be required reading for every Facility Security Officer (FSO) and those who have access to classified information within the defense or intelligence community, as details what on the surface appears to be a benign Chinese effort. Yet in reality, China has a systematic well-organized effort focused on acquiring American ingenuity and know-how, allowing China to save R&D costs and leapfrog its own research efforts ahead of adversaries or potential adversaries.

Since the Chinese Academy of Sciences established China’s “863 Program” (March 1986), China has had a systematic program to acquire the advanced technology of interest and has used a whole-of-government approach to obtain this desired information. The programs range from completely secret, where sources are officially hired by the Ministry of State Security or the People’s Liberation Army to provide desired technologies (see the targeting of General Electric by the MSS and the conviction of an MSS officer for economic espionage) to the creation of one-off trade agreements between know-how persons and Chinese entities, the most frequently used means with members of academia.

In addition, one must reject the age-old perspective that China only targets members of the Chinese diaspora. Although the Strider report identified 162 Chinese scientists who worked at Los Alamos and returned to the PRC to support a number of Chinese domestic research and development programs, including many who participated in China’s Thousand Talents Program. China’s efforts are not limited to ethnic Chinese or Chinese nationals (see further information below).

China targets those who have access to information of interest to China. China then decides who the target is.

You can’t give up. However, you should be prepared in case you have the opportunity to respond to an unsolicited, unsolicited approach asking you to share your knowledge with China.

Not necessarily espionage

The FBI often takes the approach that Chinese efforts to acquire American technology amount to espionage. In fact, over the years, FBI Director Christopher Wray has repeatedly mentioned how China’s intellectual property theft is the main counterintelligence threat facing the US today. That said, and as any counterintelligence expert will attest, proving espionage to a conviction is much more difficult than knowing there is espionage or illegal acquisition of information and having that effort neutralized.

With the Thousand Talents Program, as highlighted in the report and our previous articles, many (but not all) of the participants were in practice misled when they received research funding, and those who were not declared to the funding organization in the US (e.g. the Department of Energy) that they also had relationships with Chinese entities often committed regulatory violations with their sins of omission.

The FBI’s group approach to their “China Initiative” has led many to accuse the organization of being xenophobic, as detailed in a letter sent to Attorney General Garland in September 2021, signed by 177 Stanford professors, which says, “The Chinese initiative has deviated significantly from its stated mission: harming the research and technological competitiveness of the United States and fueling biases that in turn fuel concerns about racial profiling.

Not just nuclear technology

Readers should be warned when reading this report that China’s talent acquisition strategy, a topic covered many times in Clearance Jobs, is not limited to the Department of Energy and the Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear program. Indeed, the Thousand Talents Program has reached out to other elements of the US government and academia to include other entities within the DOE, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Harvard, Ohio State, Emory, Duke, Stanford, and many other entities.

Strider’s call to action

We asked Strider’s co-founder and CEO, Greg Levesque, why the focus was on Los Alamos, and he shared, “We focused on Los Alamos because it is the crown jewel of America’s laboratory system and is critical to our national security. The tactics used by foreign governments to acquire information and our technologies have evolved over the past decades, and our counterintelligence efforts must adapt accordingly. The report’s findings raise the question, if this is happening at Los Alamos, what is happening at the other labs?

The bottom line, as detailed in this report and by Levesque’s commentary, is that China is avoiding the United States from its intellectual property. Strider notes in the report’s conclusion, “more can be done by government-funded laboratories, research institutions and private industry to identify potential counterintelligence and IP theft risks posed by individuals whose talent the PRC seeks to use in its race for science and technology dominance. Moreover, it is an urgent national security imperative that like-minded nations work together to protect their innovation hubs and compete with China to attract, retain and protect top talent.


Additional reading

Further reading on the Thousand Talents Program and China’s intellectual property acquisition efforts:

September 2021 – Is China’s DOJ initiative actually identifying espionage cases?

January 2021 – NASA scientist pleads guilty, revealing more spying from China’s Thousand Talents program

July 2020 – A Chinese scientist from the Thousand Talents program is arrested while on the run

May 2020 – China’s 1,000 Talents Program continues to harvest US knowledge

February 2019 – FBI Director: China Using American Higher Education Against US

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