Today, April 11, 2016, Reuters reported that a U.S. Navy officer, Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin, will face espionage charges. Lin was apart of the Navy’s Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, which handles intelligence collection operations. While it has yet to be fully verified, it is believed Lin was sending secrets to either China or Taiwan.
The case of Lieutenant Commander Lin would just be a small piece in China’s larger plan for stealing U.S. secrets. The strategic threat of China understanding our military capabilities rivals that of terrorism and cybersecurity, and it is unclear if the U.S. has the ability or understanding to counter this threat.
Lin, born in Taiwan, was accused “twice of sending secret information and three times attempting to do so to a representative of a foreign government “with intent or reason to believe it would be used to the advantage of a foreign nation.”” according to Reuters.
While Lin may not have had access to highly classified information, it is a known strategy for the Chinese to rely on large numbers of low level workers to gain information. The Chinese work the information like a puzzle, putting smaller pieces together in order to form a larger picture. It is more difficult to find hundreds of low level people, as opposed to known higher ups with sensitive information.
The Canadian Navy has also been a victim of Chinese espionage. In 2013 it was discovered that a Chinese-Canadian man, Qing Quentin Huang, was sending information to the Chinese. Huang was arrested for allegedly sending information regarding Canada’s ship building capability. With this information, foreign governments can gain a tactical advantage over a nation’s Navy by preparing for the capabilities it would encounter.
The U.S. has uncovered multiple attempts by the Chinese to steal sensitive material regarding economic and military technology and capabilities in the past.
- Gwo-Bao Min was an aeronautical engineer from Taiwan. In 1975 he began to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. An FBI investigation into Min discovered he had been giving secrets to the Chinese regarding nuclear weapon technology, including how to miniaturize nuclear warheads. However, no formal charges were placed on Min, as prosecutors felt the evidence was not strong enough.
- Katrina Leung was recruited by the FBI to spy on Chinese officials, and during her time with the FBI it is estimated she was paid more than $1.7 million. Leung turned out to be a double agent, and was able to acquire classified information from her FBI handler James Smith. Leung passed along information regarding military, nuclear, and political information to the Chinese for over a decade.
- Wen Ho Lee was an employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory where he worked on the bomb-design unit. The FBI began to investigate Lee in the early 1980s when he began connecting with Gwo-Bao Min. Lee was then suspected of stealing the design of the W88 nuclear warhead and sending it to the Chinese. Lee was arrested in December 1999 and indicted on 59 felony counts alleging that he illegally downloaded classified information and violated the Atomic Energy Act and the Foreign Espionage Act. However, after striking a deal with the Federal Government, he only pled guilty to one count, and was later given compensation for a faulty investigation.
These examples illustrate the vulnerability of our nation’s classified information to foreign espionage. The Chinese have not just tried to steal our national security information, but also our economic technology and capabilities. The Justice Department has characterized the vast scale of Chinese corporate espionage as a national security emergency. The Chinese stealing U.S. corporate information is costing U.S. companies billions of dollars and over 2 million jobs.
Instead of investing in innovation themselves, the Chinese are simply stealing the innovative technologies coming out of the U.S. This allows the Chinese to focus primarily on cheap labor and production, instead of paying larger salaries for innovative thinkers.
While China has illustrated its ability to steal valuable secrets from both the federal and private sector, the U.S. still lacks in the ability to counter these efforts. In a discussion on Strategic Counterintelligence, Michelle Van Cleave, who served as the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) under President George W. Bush, argued the U.S. does not have the understanding or the ability to counter foreign powers’ espionage efforts. Her criticism comes in the lack of strategic understanding put on Counterintelligence. The U.S. has for too long focused espionage as a case-by-case event instead of looking at the larger picture. Her argument is perfectly summed up by a quote by Former deputy defense secretary John Hamre, “the goal should not be to catch the spy after he’s gotten into the country; we’ve got to stop him from entering in the first place.”
The U.S. is at a constant threat from foreign governments stealing information. Whether it be security or economic information, the U.S. must look to guard its valuable assets. A stronger focus on CI will be the first step in the right direction to mitigating these threats before it is too late.