“Too many folks in Washington cling to an imaginary distinction between Chinese businesses and the Chinese Communist Party.”
Video of Senator Sasse’s exchange is available here or by clicking on the image above

At today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the threat of China’s non-traditional espionage efforts, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, who last week praised the arrest of a Chinese tech CFO at the request of the Department of Justice, pushed for more clarity, urgency, and accountability from federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. 

“Too many folks in Washington cling to an imaginary distinction between Chinese businesses and the Chinese Communist Party,” said Senator Sasse afterward. “This is much, much bigger than corporate ‘cheating’ or old-school spy-vs-spy tactics. China wants to win a fight before it starts by leveraging every tool at Chairman Xi’s disposal – sometimes that means using the state and sometimes that means using Chinese citizens and businesses. We can’t sleep on this threat. The Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI gets this and is trying to bring urgency to the challenge.”

Transcript of Senator Sasse’s exchange with Christopher Krebs, the Director of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency for the Department of Homeland Security, and Bill Priestap, the Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is found below:  

Sasse: Mr. Chairman. Thanks to the three of you for being here. Incredibly important topic and I applaud Chairman Grassley and Senator Feinstein for scheduling this important hearing. Director Priestap, you made a number of startling and really important comments in your opening statement. How does the Chinese government think about its diaspora? How do they think about students abroad? How do they think about corporate executives working in Silicon Valley?

Priestap: In my opinion, they think of them as being beholden to them. They think of them as -- just simply an extension of their power, of their nation.

Sasse: And, what is the range of understanding that Chinese nationals who are studying, getting PhD’s in the U.S. or working in tech companies in the U.S., to what degree…what’s the differentiation of understanding they have about how they are viewed as assets of the government? 

Priestap: You mean those individuals? Based on FBI interaction with some of those individuals, it really is a case-by-case basis. Some I think are not knowledgeable in the least and are completely unwitting of doing anything in furtherance of their government aims. And, others either through direct or other softly applied pressure understand that they have obligations to meet. But, it really runs a gamut is what I’m trying to say.

Sasse: Is there clarity in the way we, the United States government communicate to folks who come into the U.S. though about our laws and about the expectations about what is and isn't appropriate forms of statecraft and spycraft?

Priestap: No, I think that is a great question and, in my experience, there doesn't seem to be consistency, and frankly it is something I think we could do a much better job of, especially in regards to universities and other research institutions, standards of research, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Is that spelled out for all of the people studying and conducting the research? So, that people know from day one what is right and what is wrong and that there will be consequences if they cross that line.

Sasse: And, when you say - and Director Krebs, you and I have had a number of good briefings separate from this and I definitely appreciate your work and also agree with the congratulations on your new role - but when we say that there is coordination but there is not a coordinator, who would be responsible for what Director Priestap just said? Who in the U.S. government is responsible for thinking through this issue of strategic communications with Chinese nationals who come to the U.S., many of them not intending to break laws but ultimately having pressure on them to break our laws or be involved in corporate and economic espionage? And, who in the U.S. government is communicating with the tech companies about the hiring they are doing? Who is communicating with the universities about the often-nefarious effects of the Confucius Institutes? Where does that responsibility reside in the U.S. government?

Krebs: I see those as counterintelligence and law enforcement roles and responsibilities that there is a substantial amount of coordination that happened through the National Security Council led in part by the Director of FBI and the Director of National Intelligence. Now, my job is principally cybersecurity and risk management is to carry the message they develop and then push it out through the public/private partnerships whether it’s with industry or with academia.

Sasse: Thanks. Director.

Priestap: I’m sorry, Senator. If I may, because I think that just an absolutely critical question in what I’m seeing, not just across government, but across business, across academia, what have you, again there are pockets of great understanding of the threat we're facing and effective responses. But in my opinion, we've got to knit that together better. Our government somehow -- obviously we have three separate branches intentionally, but if we're facing a whole of government, some call it a whole of society -- not meaning every person in the society is posing the threat but people from all walks of life -- you can't effectively combat that threat with ad hoc responses. We need more people in government, more people in business, more people in academia pulling in the same direction to combat this threat effectively.

Sasse: Going back to the point you made earlier about spy on spy, the Chinese clearly understand that this is not merely a spy on spy initiative anymore, and our system is the better system in the long-term. Decentralization is the better system for human flourishing and for innovation, but it certainly puts greater communication burdens on us to be able to respond to all of the asymmetric disadvantages that we face. Is there anything we can learn from the Five Eyes partners that we have about how they respond to these kinds of strategic threats.

Priestap: I guess the only thing I would add because obviously the FBI and my division coordinates closely with them. We need them. If we think we've got a threat today and people are trying to steal things today, what we have to understand is if they can't get it from the U.S., you go to the place where... you know, somewhere else you could get it. In other words, you look for the soft underbelly. You need a coordinated response. We need as many allies in this fight as is possible.

Sasse: I’m at time so, General Demers, I’ll just flag for you that I’m going to send you a letter following up on some of the important comments you made about the intention of the department to continue the China Initiative from the Chinese Espionage Act and to ask some questions about how many cases we're currently pursuing. So, thanks for your work.