The Department of Energy is cracking down on foreign efforts to recruit U.S. workers for research projects, adding to a slew of recent Trump administration actions aimed at stopping perceived risks of Chinese spying.
The DOE order bars federal personnel and contractors from joining lucrative talent recruitment programs sponsored by foreign governments deemed to be "of risk." The director of DOE’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence will determine which programs are safe and which are considered potential fronts for stealing intellectual property and government secrets from American researchers.
The agency directive took effect yesterday and applies to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the domestic U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, as well as tens of thousands of DOE-affiliated contractors spread across 17 U.S. national laboratories. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the order taking effect.
"While international cooperation is essential to accelerate research and development, some governments, like the Chinese Communist Party, are aggressively pursuing access to foreign science and technology advancements and intellectual property to the detriment of our economic prosperity and security," a DOE official said.
The official added that the department is also concerned about undisclosed foreign connections to U.S. researchers — links that could pose a national security threat.
The Chinese government has denied claims that it oversees a wide-ranging network of economic espionage. But under the Trump administration, Department of Justice officials have ramped up issuing indictments against Chinese nationals accused of a wide range of computer crimes and intellectual property theft, including a yearslong cyberespionage campaign against managed service providers (E&E News PM, Dec. 20, 2018).
"This ban makes sense," said Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future and former cyberthreats lead for the National Security Agency’s East Asia and Pacific office. "The goals of some of these foreign government-sponsored talent programs are to improve the competitiveness of national industries and economies, and to transfer the knowledge required to produce and advance domestic technology development."
She added in an email, "I see the DOE order as simply a refusal to allow U.S. government resources and personnel to be dual-leveraged — whether knowingly or unwittingly — to assist in developing the economies of adversary nations."
Critics of the new DOE measure worry it could compound cases of racial profiling against Chinese-American scientists or chill cooperation with foreign researchers. DOE employees and contractors have 30 days to report any participation in covered foreign government recruitment programs, based on the order, and failing to disclose research ties could result in being fired.
The Committee of Concerned Scientists wrote a letter to President Trump and congressional leaders saying that "ethnic profiling and indiscriminate investigations of Chinese scientists has no place in our country."
"Besides damaging the image of the United States, it is also damaging to our national security by inflicting irreparable harm on some of our best scientists and making them think about leaving the country," wrote the organization, which advocates for scientific freedom.
CCS also offered several examples in the past two decades of the U.S. government profiling ethnic Chinese scientists, including American citizens and U.S. permanent residents.
But DOE officials have argued China poses a unique danger.
"What’s different about China — than any other threat we’ve faced before — is it’s massive and coordinated," Charles Durant, deputy director of counterintelligence at DOE, said during a cyberthreat briefing in Washington earlier this year. "Trying to coordinate a national strategy to counter this is very difficult."
Durant added that the United States is losing more intellectual property than ever and that Beijing is "throwing every tool that they have" at spying on federal agencies and private companies. "Multifaceted doesn’t even begin to describe it," he said.
Reporter Kelsey Brugger contributed.