Justice Department expands effort to tackle tech-enabled threats

A previous, Trump-era initiative, targeted only China

Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen says DOJ will expand its focus on tech-enabled threats beyond China. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen says DOJ will expand its focus on tech-enabled threats beyond China. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Posted March 1, 2022 at 6:15am

The Justice Department last week announced a sweeping new effort to address tech-enabled threats posed by countries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as it shuttered a more narrow Trump-era initiative.

The move comes as the department ended a program called the China Initiative, launched in 2018 under President Donald Trump, that was aimed at addressing Beijing’s aggressive cyber-enabled economic espionage, which includes Beijing’s efforts to attract top scientific talent from around the world to work in China. 

“We confront everything from profit-driven efforts to steal trade secrets and military technology to state-sponsored efforts in cyber targeting our critical infrastructure,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen said late last week, explaining the broader effort. “Hostile foreign governments assault our democratic and economic institutions in pursuit of strategic competitive advantage.”

The Justice Department’s National Security Division will enlarge its efforts to address threats posed by nation-states, including cyberattacks, foreign malign influence aimed at American voters, efforts to evade U.S. export controls on key technologies and suppression of dissidents, Olsen said. 

The decision to drop the China Initiative and expand the scope to include threats from other countries came after the Justice Department lost high-profile cases against Chinese-origin American scientists who were accused of allegedly concealing their ties to Beijing. The department then undertook a three-month review to address concerns by researchers around the country that the program was fueling anti-Chinese bias. 

Failed prosecutions of scientists and fears of bias “can lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in this country,” Olsen said. 

In January, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who was arrested in January 2021 during the last week of the Trump administration. 

Chen was charged with excluding his affiliation with Chinese government institutions in his grant applications to the U.S. Department of Energy. He pleaded not guilty, and prosecutors dropped the case because Chen had no obligation to report his affiliations.

The decision to close the China Initiative was welcomed by Asian-American groups. 

"The China Initiative and the broader rhetoric around it has harmed our nation’s competitiveness, ruined the careers of innocent scholars, and severely damaged the government’s relationship with Asian American communities,” Linda Ng, president of the OCA-Asian-Pacific American Advocates, said in an email. “National security interests should never be used as an excuse to systematically strip Asian Americans and Asian immigrant scientists of their civil liberties.”

Although the department is giving up the moniker of the China Initiative, U.S. officials say threats posed by Beijing remain significant. 

Sizing up the threat

In January, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Beijing was capitalizing on the high U.S. demand for Chinese-made products as well as the large Chinese student population in American universities to pursue its goal of economic superiority.

“When we tally up what we see in our investigations — over 2,000 of which are focused on the Chinese government trying to steal our information or technology — there is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China,” Wray said, adding that the FBI opens a new counterintelligence case against China about twice a day.

Over the past few years, the FBI and the Justice Department have charged several Chinese officials and agencies with economic espionage, theft of technology and intellectual property. The cases include allegations of China stealing U.S. military secrets, pharmaceutical research, renewable energy technologies and semiconductor know-how, among others. Chinese spy agencies also have been accused of breaking into U.S. computer networks to steal personal information of top U.S. officials.

The United States also has brought cases against agents from Russia, Iran and North Korea, accusing them of launching ransomware attacks, stealing technologies and engaging in influence campaigns. 

Olsen said the Justice Department’s new approach would continue to focus on the efforts of the Chinese government, its agents and the Chinese Communist Party, and not Chinese people or Americans of Chinese origin. 

Nevertheless, “I don't think that's wise, or a good strategy, to focus on one country, particularly when we're talking about the level of nation-state activity that I've seen, again, from Iran, North Korea and, of course, as again as we sit here today, Russia,” Olsen said at an event hosted by George Mason University’s National Security Institute. 

Olsen also pointed to a new effort by the White House to tighten reporting requirements by U.S-based scientists and researchers seeking federal grants. 

The White House National Science and Technology Council in January issued a set of guidelines for ensuring that scientists seeking federal grants don’t have conflicts of interest stemming from their participation in foreign talent recruitment programs. The guidelines address a presidential national security memorandum issued in early 2021 on the subject. 

The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the departments of Defense, Energy, Agriculture, Education, as well as NASA and other agencies that provide research grants, are crafting rules for disclosure that grant-seekers must fulfill.