U.S. Colleges: A Front Line For International Spying

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A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

With Anthony Brooks

Maria Butina is the latest accused Russian to infiltrate an American university. Investigative journalist Daniel Golden, author of "Spy Schools," has the story.


Daniel Golden, senior editor for ProPublica and author of "Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's Universities." (@DanLGolden)

Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director. COO at ETS Risk Management, Inc. and an NBC News national security contributor. (@FrankFigliuzzi1)

From The Reading List

ProPublica: "Why Russian Spies Really Like American Universities" — "If the charges against Butina are accurate, she’s only the latest in a long line of Russian agents to infiltrate U.S. universities. Dating back to the Soviet era, Russian spies have sought to take advantage of academia's lax security, collaborative, global culture, and revolving door with government. Russian intelligence understands that today’s professor of international relations may be tomorrow’s assistant secretary of state, and vice versa. Although cyber-spying and hacking offer opportunities to glean secrets at less personal risk, the traditional strategies of human espionage persist, and sending a spy to school is prominent among them."

Excerpt from "Spy Schools" by Daniel Golden

Cloak of Invisibility

Brandishing a light saber, and sporting a dark cloak and hood that concealed his eyes but not his grin, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi pranced about the stage of Window of the World Caesar’s Palace in Shenzhen, China, on the evening of January 30, 2016. So did Jedi warriors, imperial stormtroopers, and other Star Wars characters. Pulsating spotlights and jets of smoke alternately illuminated and clouded the spectacle as a cheering audience of seven hundred waved yellow, green, and purple sabers.

Titled “Battle of Future—A New Dawn,” the Star Wars parody highlighted an extravaganza that also featured live music, sensual dances, people’s faces (poked through a screen) atop puppet bodies, and a tribute to China’s military. It marked the sixth anniversary of Kuang-Chi Institute of Advanced Technology and Kuang-Chi Science Ltd., which aim to conceive and commercialize breakthroughs in the fast-growing field of metamaterials. Ruopeng Liu, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, is the founder and head of these ventures; the other Jedis, their executives; the performers and audience, their workers. Several members of the audience won prizes epitomizing the fearless, innovative spirit that Liu preaches: trips to the North Pole, the South Pole, and Near Space.


Still in his costume but now sans saber, Liu clutched an enormous bouquet of flowers in his left hand and a microphone in his right, and glorified his accomplishments in song. “No matter how thrilling it is outside, I behave with perfect composure,” he crooned in Chinese. “You can’t say how hard the trip is, it’s fortunate we kept a cool head.” Then he segued into the chorus from the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

Chubby-cheeked and endearingly boyish at the age of thirty-two, Liu had a lot to celebrate. His majority stake in Kuang-Chi Science, which is traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, made him a billionaire with a business empire extending to the United States, Norway, Canada, and New Zealand. Chinese media dubbed him the “Elon Musk of China,” equating him as a visionary with the iconic founder of electric car maker Tesla. By the end of 2015, his fledgling institute had sought an astounding total of 3,289 patents, and received 1,783. China’s government showered him with honors and responsibilities for technology policy, and President Xi Jinping, as well as many prominent ministers and party officials, toured Liu’s enterprises in Shenzhen.

Yet Liu’s wealth and fame are a mask, like his costume at the anniversary gala, or the invisibility cloak that he helped design as a Duke graduate student in electrical engineering, under renowned professor David R. Smith. They hide an unsettling reality that has never been made public: he owes much of his success to what one might call a higher education form of economic espionage. Liu exploited an unwary professor, lax collaboration guidelines, and Duke’s open, global culture by funneling Pentagon-funded research to China. He arranged for Chinese researchers to visit Smith’s lab and reproduce its equipment, and passed them data and ideas developed by unwitting colleagues at Duke. He secretly started a Chinese website based on research at Duke, and deceived Smith into committing to work part-time in China. His activities compromised the United States’ edge in an emerging technology that could someday conceal a fighter jet, tank, or drone, affecting the outcome of a war or covert operation. Once Liu returned to China, a grateful government invested millions in his start-up ventures.

Looking back, some of Liu’s former colleagues in the Duke lab feel that he violated their trust. “When you toil away in academia, only about ten people know it’s your idea,” one member of the lab, Jonah Gollub, told me. “Ideas were flowing from here to China. In retrospect, people feel they weren’t given the full picture.”

The Liu case illustrates how vulnerable academic research is to foreign raiders, and how little universities do to protect it. Eager to attract international students and open branches abroad, universities are reluctant to offend China and other countries by cracking down on research theft. Yet, by looking the other way, they’re betraying the government agencies, and ultimately the American taxpayers, funding the research. We pay taxes for our military to defend us, only to have universities compromise that security by pursuing global prominence without acknowledging or addressing the collateral damage.

Although Liu has never been charged with any crime, the FBI looked into his activities and briefed university presidents and law enforcement officials about them. At an October 2012 closed-door session of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board at FBI headquarters, according to an agenda obtained through a public records request, Smith recounted how, “without his knowledge, a Chinese national targeted his lab and … created a mirror institute in China. The episode cost Duke significantly in licensing, patents and royalties and kept Smith from being the first to publish ground-breaking research.” An FBI video interview with Smith about the episode, shown to an invitation-only audience in September 2015, was titled simply “The Theft of a Great Idea.”

Liu “was definitely filled with intent,” and his actions “could have tremendous economic impact in the future,” Smith wrote me in July 2015. “I think if people understood how something like this happens, and how those with potentially ill intent can take advantage of the natural chaos that occurs in US academic environments, they might become more aware and avoid things like this in the future.”

* * *

Academic research offers a valuable, vulnerable, and low-risk target for foreign espionage. Despite pursuing groundbreaking technologies for the Pentagon and the intelligence community, university laboratories are less protected than their corporate counterparts, reflecting a culture oriented toward collaboration and publication. Typically, university researchers aren’t required to sign nondisclosure agreements, which run counter to the ethic of openness.

“There’s a lot less control than in a company like Boeing,” says John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Universities are ripe pickings for anybody who’s interested in accessing intellectual property.”

Ignorance about intellectual property safeguards, or even hostility toward them, is rife among science students and faculty. There is “zero instruction” on the topic outside law school, Villasenor told me. Significant proportions of UCLA engineering graduate students whom he surveyed couldn’t define a patent (21 percent), copyright (32 percent), trademark (51 percent), or trade secret (68 percent). Never contemplating the possibility of espionage, American professors sometimes comply with requests from acquaintances or strangers overseas for research advice, manuscript reviews, or unpublished data. A civil engineering professor at Penn State once phoned Graham Spanier, then the university’s president, to say that a foreigner had emailed him asking how to build an underground concrete structure that could withstand a megaton explosion.

“I was about to hit send, when it dawned on me, I’d better ask,” the professor said. “I don’t know this person.” Spanier notified the FBI, which traced the request back through seven intermediary layers before losing the trail. The elaborately disguised source was never unmasked.

The casual university attitude belies the growing threat. Academic solicitation, or “the use of students, professors, scientists or researchers as collectors,” tripled from 8 percent of all foreign efforts to obtain sensitive or classified information in fiscal 2010 to 24 percent in 2014, according to the Defense Security Service, a Defense Department agency that protects American technology.

American college graduates with a flair for engineering or computer science typically join high-technology companies, or start their own, rather than continue their educations. As a result, international students dominate graduate programs in those fields at U.S. universities, forming the backbone of their workforce for cutting-edge research. In 2012–13, foreign students earned 56.9 percent of doctorates conferred by U.S. universities in engineering and 52.5 percent of those in computer and information sciences. They comprise more than 70 percent of graduate students nationwide in Smith’s specialty, electrical engineering.

“Foreign intelligence services, foreign corporations and foreign governments often target these students in an attempt to have them provide the results of the research they are working on or other proprietary and intellectual property that belongs to the United States government or to United States corporations that are funding the research,” David W. Szady, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, wrote in a July 2014 newsletter. “Foreign militaries can develop state-of-the-art weapons systems by stealing research from colleges and universities that is sponsored by the United States Department of Defense.”

Excerpted from Spy Schools by Daniel Golden. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.

Maria Butina is the young Russian accused of using sex, lies and guns to infiltrate American politics. She attended American University on a student visa, and according to federal agents, ingratiated herself with people in power — even posing a question to presidential candidate Donald Trump. If the charges are true, she’s the latest in a long line of Russian agents to go undercover on U.S. campuses.

This hour, On Point: American higher ed on the front line of international spying.

— Anthony Brooks

This program aired on July 25, 2018.


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